Feb 11, 2020 - Science

We're about to learn a lot more about the Sun

The Sun as seen by the Solar Dynamics Observatory in yellow light.
The Sun is getting its due. Photo: NASA/SDO/AIA

The Sun is getting a long-overdue close-up thanks to a number of new missions designed to reveal the inner workings of our nearest star.

Why it matters: The mechanisms that govern the solar wind, the Sun's 11-year cycle and magnetic fields are still largely a mystery.

  • Understanding those behaviors is necessary for forecasting space weather — and protecting satellites in orbit and the power grid on Earth.

What's happening: The Solar Orbiter spacecraft — a joint mission of NASA and the European Space Agency — launched Sunday night.

  • Once in place around the Sun, it will snap photos of the star's polar regions for the first time and give scientists a better understanding of its magnetic fields.

The big picture: The Solar Orbiter and two other recent Sun-centered missions are allowing scientists to study how space weather — like solar flares — is generated and spread across the solar system.

The bigger picture: Learning more about the Sun could also help researchers piece together how other sunlike stars act and whether those solar systems might harbor habitable planets.

  • "The only way we can really understand that complex relationship [between a star and its planets] is if we understand the one that we're directly affected by — the Sun and the Earth," NASA solar scientist Alex Young told Axios.

Details: The Parker Solar Probe, launched in 2018, is studying the solar wind, picking apart the small particles not far from the Sun to understand how the star's atmosphere works.

  • The National Science Foundation's Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope is a microscope for the Sun, gathering detailed observations about the star's surface from Earth.
  • When the Parker Probe's and Solar Orbiter's orbits align, they'll be able to study the same stream of particles from the Sun at different points in space.
  • About 10 other spacecraft also continue to stare at the star from farther away, adding to those observations.

Yes, but: All this new data doesn't immediately translate into better predictions of space weather.

  • Current space weather models don't completely account for the behavior of the Sun's magnetic fields and the intricacies of how solar flares shoot from the star.
  • The data gathered by the new telescopes will be fed into those models, but it may take years to fully integrate the new information.

Go deeper: New telescope takes highest-resolution photo of the Sun's surface

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