The closest images ever taken of the Sun, captured by the UK-built Solar Orbiter spacecraft, were released last month. Built in Stevenage by Airbus, backed by the UK Space Agency and launched in February 2020, Solar Orbiter will provide images of the Sun from inside the orbit of its nearest planet, Mercury.
Recorded at a distance of just over 77 million km, the latest images have revealed omnipresent miniature solar flares, dubbed ‘campfires’, near the surface of the Sun.
Discoveries such as these will help scientists piece together the Sun’s atmospheric layers — knowledge that is deemed vital for our understanding of how it drives space weather events, as these can disrupt and damage satellites and infrastructure on Earth that our mobile phones, transport, GPS signals and the electricity networks rely on.
Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “The Solar Orbiter was eight years in the making, and represents an incredible feat of UK engineering. Now, this spacecraft has helped us make this historic discovery of the ‘campfires’ near the surface of the Sun.
“This mission is one of the UK’s most important space ventures for a generation and, with our £600 million investment in international space science missions, I hope it will be one of many in the years to come.”
Occasionally, the Sun erupts giant amounts of particles known as coronal mass ejections. When such an eruption slams into Earth’s magnetic field, it generates surges of electrical current, and as yet solar scientists do not have reliable ways to predict them.
The largest one known to hit Earth was the Carrington event in 1859, named after one of the people who observed an intensely bright spot on the Sun where the eruption occurred. The surge caused some telegraph wires to catch fire.