Feb 11, 2020 - Science

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

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

Go deeper

Solar Orbiter to offer a new look at our nearest star

Artist's illustration of the Solar Orbiter. Image: NASA/NASA Goddard

A new mission expected to launch to space from Florida on Sunday will give scientists an unprecedented view of the Sun.

Why it matters: Despite decades of studying our closest star, scientists still can't accurately predict our Sun's behavior — when it will eject solar flares, sprout sunspots or how the solar wind works.

Go deeperArrowFeb 4, 2020 - Science

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

The highest-resolution photo of the Sun's surface ever taken. Photo: NSO/NSF/AURA

New photos and videos reveal the surface of the Sun in sharper detail than ever before.

Why it matters: Images and videos like these taken by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawaii can help scientists understand the inner workings of our nearest star, potentially helping predict dangerous space weather in the future.

Go deeperArrowJan 30, 2020

Saying goodbye to the Spitzer Space Telescope

The Tarantula Nebula as seen by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On Thursday, NASA will shut down the Spitzer Space Telescope, ending a mission that transformed how we understand the invisible machinations of the universe.

Why it matters: While the telescope is still able to function today, NASA made the decision to shut it down, saying $14 million per year is too high a cost for its diminishing science return as the observatory will likely be inoperable soon.

Go deeperArrowJan 28, 2020