First-look data from the Solar Orbiter could reveal new 'wonders' about the Sun © ESA/Medialab

First-look data from the Solar Orbiter could reveal new ‘wonders’ about the Sun

The European Space Agency has released the first round of information from the probe, which hundreds of scientists across the globe are working together to understand.

The first data from the Solar Orbiter may reveal “a whole extra set of wonders” about the Sun that no-one is yet aware of, an expert has said.

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The European Space Agency (ESA) has released the first round of information from the probe to the scientific community and the wider public.

The data were collected by a suite of in-situ instruments that measure the conditions surrounding the spacecraft – the Energetic Particle Detector (EPD), the Radio and Plasma Waves (RPW) instrument, and the Magnetometer (MAG).

Read more about the Solar Orbiter:

Based on the successful approach taken by previous solar physics missions, it was decided that the time between the data being received on Earth and it being released to the world would be at most 90 days.

“To do this in COVID-19 times was very challenging,” said Yannis Zouganelis, Solar Orbiter deputy project scientist for the ESA.

“But we are ready to deliver the data to the scientific community according to the plan, so that they can do science with it.”

The job of the MAG was to learn about all the small magnetic fields that the spacecraft itself generates when its various circuits and equipment are switched on and off.

Professor Tim Horbury of Imperial College, and principal investigator of MAG, said the fact the data was ready on time was testament to the hard work of the engineering team at Imperial.

“They have worked incredibly hard over the last few months. It’s been an immense amount of work,” said Prof Horbury. “There’s a lot of it that we’re releasing that nobody’s really looked at in great detail yet. So I am sure there will also be a whole extra set of wonders – we just don’t know what they are yet.

“There’s an enormous amount for people to do, and I really hope that people will dive in.”

What do we know about the Sun?

Once the instruments on the orbiter are taking data, the mission enters a calibration phase in which work is undertaken by each instrument team to understand how their equipment is working in space.

Once this is complete, the teams process the data and send them to the ESA’s European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC), near Madrid. There, the data is archived at the ESAC Science Data Centre and made accessible to the public.

At the same time as the data release, a special issue of the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics is being published that contains mission and instrument descriptions.

“Now any scientist from any country can get the data and do science with it,” said Zouganelis. “In fact, there are already hundreds of scientists working together to make sense out of this unique data.”

The researchers want Solar Orbiter to be one of the most open space missions – open to the whole world and not just the teams who have built the instruments.

The Solar Orbiter was constructed by Airbus in Stevenage and blasted off from Nasa’s Cape Canaveral site in Florida on 10 February 2020.

It has been designed to withstand the scorching heat from the Sun that will hit one side, while maintaining freezing temperatures on the other side of the spacecraft as the orbit keeps it in shadow.

“The only thing more unpredictable than British weather, is space weather,” said Dr Caroline Harper, head of space science at the UK Space Agency.

“But what we do know is that the Sun’s solar flares can produce streams of highly energetic particles and gas capable of reaching Earth. These solar flares could damage satellites and cause electrical blackouts on the ground.

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“The more we can learn about space weather through missions like the UK-built Solar Orbiter, the more we can predict and protect ourselves from its effects – which is why I am delighted to see the first reports of data today.”

Reader Q&A: Why are sunspots black?

Asked by: Adam King, Huddersfield

Sunspots are areas of the Sun’s photosphere (the visible surface) that are significantly cooler than the surrounding regions. Although the exact details of sunspot formation are not fully understood, they are coincident with areas of increased magnetic field.

These intense magnetic fields appear to suppress the release of heat into the photosphere, thus making sunspots cooler than their surroundings by a couple of thousand degrees Celsius. This means that sunspots are only about a third as bright as the surrounding photosphere, and it’s this contrast in brightness that makes them appear dark, even black.

If you could pluck a sunspot from the Sun and put it in the night sky, it would actually be about as bright as the surface of the Moon as seen from Earth.

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