July 16 (UPI) -- The European Space Agency and NASA's joint Solar Orbitor mission on Thursday unveiled the closest ever pictures of the sun -- and they revealed something unexpected, researchers said.
The pictures, taken during ESA/NASA's Solar Orbitor mission to study earth's closest star, the Sun, are now publicly available, NASA said in a statement Thursday.
The images are the first returned from the spacecraft, which launched in February and made its first close approach to the sun in mid-June.
"These unprecedented pictures of the sun are the closest we have ever obtained," said Holly Gilbert, NASA project scientist for the mission at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement.
"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," Gilbert said.
The Solar Orbiter has six imaging instruments to study various aspects of the sun. Scientists don't expect new discoveries from the first return of data because it usually just confirms that the instruments are working, but one of the instruments, the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager, discovered something new.
The EUI returned data showing omnipresent minature solar flares, called "campfires," near the sun's surface.
"The campfires we are talking about here are the little nephews of solar flares, at least a million, perhaps a billion times smaller," principal investigator David Berghmans, an astrophysicist at the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels, said in a statement. "When looking at the new high resolution EUI images, they are literally everywhere we look."
The mission faced some challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The European Space Operations Center was closed down for more than a week because of the pandemic, which led to staff working with a skeleton crew during commissioning.
"The pandemic required us to perform critical operations remotely - - the first time we have ever done that," said Russell Howard, a principal investigator for one of Solar Orbiter's imagers.
Still, the Solar Orbiter team adapted and completed commissioning in time to return results Thursday, officials said.
"We didn't expect such great results so early," Daniel Muller, ESA's Solar Orbiter project scientist, added. "These images show that Solar Orbiter is off to an excellent start."
The new data is available to view in ESA's gallery.
Next, scientists aim to take a more precise measurement of the campfires temperature. This will help to determine if the campfires are mini-explosions known as nanoflares that heat the corona, the outermost part of the sun's atmosphere, to a temperature 300 times hotter than the solar surface.
"So we're eagerly awaiting our next data set," said Frederic Auchere, principal investigator of Spectral Imaging of the Coronal Environment instrument operations at the Institute for Space Astrophysics in Orsay, France. "The hope is to detect nanoflares for sure and to quantify their role in coronal heating."