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A spacecraft rocketing around the sun sends back the closest images ever taken of our star

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A telescope rocketing around the sun just beamed back the closest images and videos ever recorded of our star, but it’s just getting started on its mission.

The Solar Orbiter, built by the European Space Agency (ESA) with help from NASA, flew within 48 million miles (77 million kilometers) of the sun on June 15 — half the distance between the sun and Earth. 

That was the closest the Orbiter has gotten to the sun since launching in February. The approach was primarily intended as a chance for the spacecraft to test its instruments — including its cameras — before it begins scientific observation in full.

But already, the orbiter discovered something new: The sun’s surface is covered in miniature solar flares — bursts of radiation that make the largest explosions in our solar system. The scientists behind the spacecraft call these widespread flares “campfires.”

“We couldn’t believe it when we first saw this,” Sami Solanki, a lead scientist on the Solar Probe team at the Max Planck Institute, said during a ESA webcast on Thursday.

“We started giving it crazy names like ‘campfires’ and ‘dark fibers’ and ‘ghosts,'” Solanki added. “There is so much new small phenomena going on on the smaller scale that we are starting a new vocabulary to give it all names.”

The Solar Orbiter is slated to take unprecedented measurements of the sun’s most mysterious forces over its main seven-year-long mission. However, the mission could get extended to 2030 to collect even more information.

“If it can last for 10 years, there’s a good chance it will last longer,” Daniel Müller, the project science for the ESA’s Solar Orbiter team, said during Thursday’s briefing.

Data that the probe returns could help scientists pinpoint the origins of space weather and even track eruptions on the sun in near-real time.

The video below shows some of what the Solar Orbiter captured with its imaging instruments during this first approach.

“We are all really excited about these first images – but this is just the beginning,” Müller said in a press release. “Solar Orbiter has started a grand tour of the inner solar system, and will get much closer to the sun within less than two years.”

The spacecraft follows an oval-shaped trajectory around the sun. All in all, it’s set to complete 22 orbits, which will take it past the orbits of Mercury, Venus, and Earth before swinging it around to get its closest looks at the sun over the next seven years.

In future approaches, the telescope will get as close as 26 million miles (42 million kilometers) to the sun. In 2025, it will harness Venus’s gravity to shift its orbit so that it can take the first-ever images of the sun’s poles.

“It’s like Earth 150 years ago; nobody had been at the poles,” Solanki said Thursday.

As Solar Orbiter leaves the sun’s ecliptic plane within the next couple of years, Müller said “we’ll be at an angle where it starts getting interesting.” In 2027, he added, the probe will get its first prime and unprecedented views of the sun’s poles.

“If we’ve already made some discoveries in just the first-light images, just imagine what we’re going to find when we get closer to the sun, and when we get out of the ecliptic,” Holly R. Gilbert, a Solar Orbiter project scientist at NASA, said during Thursday’s briefing.

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