Europe’s Solar Orbiter mission that is exploring the inner regions of the sun and the heliosphere from a near-sun orbit has spotted eruptions on the Sun.
These eruptions were detected by multiple instruments on the spacecraft during a close flyby of the sun, which is called a perihelion, on February 10. This flyby brought the spacecraft within 46.5 million miles of the sun, about half the distance between the massive star and Earth.
This is the first time the orbiter has witnessed such eruptions.
The mission was launched in February 2020, is a collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency. Although Solar Orbiter’s main scientific agenda doesn’t begin until November, which is to study the sun’s north and south poles.
Currently the spacecraft is in its cruise phase, which allows for calibration of some of the 10 instruments aboard. During the cruise phase, four of its instruments are up and running and have been since launch.
The February flyby presented mission teams with an opportunity to conduct observations and test out some of their instruments.
Once the scientific mission begins in earnest, all 10 instruments will work together to create joint observations of our sun.
This flyby was unique in that the spacecraft was actually behind the sun from the perspective of Earth, causing a lag in data transfer rates. This delayed the data’s delivery to mission scientists, so some of it is still being analysed.
The mission team wasn’t expecting Solar Orbiter to record any data as it passed behind the sun and looped back around in orbit on the other side, so capturing these eruptions was a happy accident.
Understanding coronal mass ejections is key to decoding space weather, which is activity from the sun that can cause impacts on Earth. These can affect astronauts on the space station in low-Earth orbit, as well as satellites that support global communications.