These Are the Closest Images of the Sun Yet

'Campfires' might explain why the sun's outer atmosphere burns hotter than the surface
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 16, 2020 12:53 PM CDT
These Are the Closest Images of the Sun Yet
Detail from a photo of the sun taken by the Solar Orbiter.   (NASA)

Fly dangerously close to the sun, and what do you see? "Campfires." That's what scientists have dubbed the small solar flares seen in new NASA photos—the closest ever taken of the sun's surface, the Guardian reports. "The campfires are little relatives of the solar flares that we can observe from Earth, million or billion times smaller," says David Berghmans, a top scientist leading the Solar Orbiter mission that snapped the photos from 48 million miles away. "The sun might look quiet at the first glance, but when we look in detail, we can see those miniature flares everywhere we look." The newly observed flares might also help explain why the sun's atmosphere burns so hot while its surface is relatively cool—a question that's been haunting solar physicists.

The outer layer of the sun's atmosphere—called the corona—is burning at 2 million degrees Fahrenheit while the surface is merely 9,900 degrees, perhaps because the "campfires" are heating up the atmosphere, per the Atlantic. "A few of them together do not create a lot of heat or energy," says Holly Gilbert, a NASA solar physicist. "If you combine them all together, it's possible that that is contributing to the coronal heating." The smaller flares also fit a hypothesis that magnetic interactions would trigger such "nanoflares" near the sun's surface. Next up for the Solar Orbiter: snapping shots of the sun's still-uncharted north and south poles when it reaches a good angle next year. Even better: The mission is slated to orbit the sun 22 times over a 10-year period, the New York Times reports. (You can also see 10 years of the sun in one hour.)

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