Solar orbiter mission captures sun blasts that could disrupt technology on Earth
CNN — An accident turned out to be helpful when the Solar Orbiter mission caught a glimpse of some eruptions coming from the sun.
The eruptions, called coronal mass ejections, blast out solar particles across the solar system and have the potential to disrupt technology if they reach Earth.
A flyby brought the spacecraft within 46.5 million miles of the sun — that’s half the distance between the massive star and Earth. Instruments picked up on the eruptions on Feb. 10.
It was the first time the orbiter witnessed the eruptions.
The mission, which launched in February 2020, is a collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency. Although Solar Orbiter’s main scientific agenda doesn’t begin until November — to study the sun’s north and south poles — it has already made close passes by the sun that captured the closest images ever taken of our star.
Right now, the orbiter is in its cruise phase which allows some of its 10 instruments to be calibrated. During this phase, four instruments are up and running. The February flyby allowed researchers a test run of sorts.
The mission team wasn’t expecting Solar Orbiter to record any data as it passed behind the sun and looped back around in orbit on the other side, so capturing the eruptions was a happy accident.
The instruments on Solar Orbiter, as well as data collected by the other missions, shows a sudden eruption of particles from the sun, occurring in tandem with a visibly bright burst.
Tracking space weather
Understanding the sun’s magnetic field and solar wind are key, because they contribute to space weather. The sun’s magnetic field is so massive that it stretches beyond Pluto, providing a pathway for solar wind to travel directly across the solar system.
The Solar Orbiter mission will work with NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which is currently orbiting the sun on a seven-year mission and just completed its fourth close approach of the star. It launched in August 2018 and will eventually come within 4 million miles of the sun — the closest a spacecraft has ever flown by our star.
Together, the missions can help unlock the mysteries of the sun and provide more data to researchers than either could accomplish on its own. Parker can sample particles coming off the sun up close, while Solar Orbiter will fly farther back to capture more encompassing observations and provide broader context.
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