Close-up views of the Sun as seen by Solar Orbiter. Photo: ESA

A spacecraft on a mission to the Sun has beamed back new images that show never-before-seen features of our nearest star.

Why it matters: The Solar Orbiter, which launched to space in February, is designed to take close-up images of the star in order to help scientists better predict its behavior. These photos represent a step forward for that work.

Details: "No images have been taken of the Sun at such a close distance before and the level of detail they provide is impressive," David Long, a scientist working on Solar Orbiter, said in a statement.

  • The new photos show what the scientists behind the mission are calling "campfires" on the Sun — small flares that constantly shooting forth from the star.
  • These flares are millions of times smaller than the larger flares that occasionally burst from active regions of the star, but they might help scientists piece together why the outermost layer of the Sun's atmosphere is hundreds of times hotter than its inner layers, Long added.
  • The photos were taken in June when Solar Orbiter was about 77 million kilometers from the Sun.

The big picture: The Sun has been relatively quiet in recent years, but scientists think its activity might star to ramp up again soon as it comes out of solar minimum, potentially giving Solar Orbiter and other Sun-studying spacecraft a good look at a more active Sun.

  • Other telescopes like the Parker Solar Probe in space and the National Science Foundation’s Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawaii will also keep a close eye on the Sun in the coming years to learn more about how its complex physics work.
  • The Parker Solar Probe will get closer to the Sun than Solar Orbiter, but Parker isn't able to take effective images of the star due to the extreme environment it's flying within.
  • Data from all three missions could one day be used to better predict space weather like solar flares that can threaten satellites in orbit and power grids on the ground.

What's next: Solar Orbiter will reach its closest point to the Sun in about two years and will take new photos along the way.

Go deeper: We're about to learn a lot more about the Sun

Go deeper

Felix Salmon, author of Capital
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