European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA's Solar Orbiter sent the closest pictures of the Sun. This is a cooperative mission between the ESA and NASA. The European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Germany operates Solar Orbiter. The Orbiter was built by Airbus Defence and Space and launched with the Atlas V 411 launch vehicle on 9th February 2020. ESA director of Science, Günther Hasinger said,
As humans, we have always been familiar with the importance of the Sun to life on Earth, observing it and investigating how it works in detail, but we have also long known it has the potential to disrupt everyday life should we be in the firing line of a powerful solar storm.
The mission includes 22 close approaches to the Sun. On June 15 the spacecraft completed its first close pass of the Sun. As it flew within 48 million miles of the Sun, the Solar Orbiter snapped the closest pictures of the Sun to date.
NASA project scientist for the mission Holly Gilbert said,
These unprecedented pictures of the Sun are the closest we have ever obtained. These amazing images will help scientists piece together the Sun's atmospheric layers, which is important for understanding how it drives space weather near the Earth and throughout the solar system.
Solar Orbiter carries six imaging instruments, each of which studies a different aspect of the Sun. Normally, the first images from a spacecraft confirm the instruments are working; scientists don't expect new discoveries from them. But the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager, or EUI, on Solar Orbiter returned data hinting at solar features never observed in such detail.
Principal investigator David Berghmans points out mini-explosions known as nanoflares on these images. He calls them 'campfires'. These tiny but ubiquitous sparks theorized to help heat the Sun's outer atmosphere, or corona, to its temperature 300 times hotter than the solar surface. Other images from the spacecraft showcase additional promise for later in the mission, when Solar Orbiter is closer to the Sun.
Russell Howard of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., observed zodiacal light. The light from the Sun reflecting off of interplanetary dust – a light so faint that the bright face of the Sun normally obscures it. He said,
The images produced such a perfect zodiacal light pattern, so clean. That gives us a lot of confidence that we will be able to see solar wind structures when we get closer to the Sun.