Calendar An icon of a desk calendar. Cancel An icon of a circle with a diagonal line across. Caret An icon of a block arrow pointing to the right. Email An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of the Facebook "f" mark. Google An icon of the Google "G" mark. Linked In An icon of the Linked In "in" mark. Logout An icon representing logout. Profile An icon that resembles human head and shoulders. Telephone An icon of a traditional telephone receiver. Tick An icon of a tick mark. Is Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes. Is Not Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes with a diagonal line through it. Pause Icon A two-lined pause icon for stopping interactions. Quote Mark A opening quote mark. Quote Mark A closing quote mark. Arrow An icon of an arrow. Folder An icon of a paper folder. Breaking An icon of an exclamation mark on a circular background. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Caret An icon of a caret arrow. Clock An icon of a clock face. Close An icon of the an X shape. Close Icon An icon used to represent where to interact to collapse or dismiss a component Comment An icon of a speech bubble. Comments An icon of a speech bubble, denoting user comments. Ellipsis An icon of 3 horizontal dots. Envelope An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of a facebook f logo. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Home An icon of a house. Instagram An icon of the Instagram logo. LinkedIn An icon of the LinkedIn logo. Magnifying Glass An icon of a magnifying glass. Search Icon A magnifying glass icon that is used to represent the function of searching. Menu An icon of 3 horizontal lines. Hamburger Menu Icon An icon used to represent a collapsed menu. Next An icon of an arrow pointing to the right. Notice An explanation mark centred inside a circle. Previous An icon of an arrow pointing to the left. Rating An icon of a star. Tag An icon of a tag. Twitter An icon of the Twitter logo. Video Camera An icon of a video camera shape. Speech Bubble Icon A icon displaying a speech bubble WhatsApp An icon of the WhatsApp logo. Information An icon of an information logo. Plus A mathematical 'plus' symbol. Duration An icon indicating Time. Success Tick An icon of a green tick. Success Tick Timeout An icon of a greyed out success tick. Loading Spinner An icon of a loading spinner.

Solar Orbiter images capture the Sun like never before

Solar Orbiter’s ‘space hedgehog’ (ESA & NASA/Solar Orbiter/EUI Team)
Solar Orbiter’s ‘space hedgehog’ (ESA & NASA/Solar Orbiter/EUI Team)

Powerful flares, views across the solar poles, and a curious solar “hedgehog” are among the latest haul of images from the Solar Orbiter.

The spacecraft’s closest approach to the Sun, known as perihelion, took place on March 26, taking it inside the orbit of Mercury, at about one-third the distance from the Sun to the Earth.

David Berghmans, from the Royal Observatory of Belgium, and the principal investigator of the extreme ultraviolet imager (EUI) instrument, which takes high-resolution images of the lower layers of the Sun’s atmosphere, known as the solar corona, described the images as “really breathtaking”.

One eye-catching feature captured by the spacecraft has been nicknamed “the hedgehog”.

It stretches 25,000 kilometres across the Sun and has a multitude of spikes of hot and colder gas that reach out in all directions.

As something the EUI team cannot immediately recognise, they must dig through past solar observations by other space missions to see if anything similar has been seen before, in order to understand what they are seeing.

During the perihelion the spacecraft also soaked up several solar flares, providing a taste of real-time space weather forecasting.

This is becoming increasingly important because of the threat space weather poses to technology and astronauts.

Caroline Harper, head of space science at the UK Space Agency, said: “It’s hugely exciting to see these incredible images and footage; the closest we’ve ever seen of the Sun, captured during Solar Orbiter’s nearest pass so far.

Image of the Sun taken during the perihelion pass
Image of the Sun taken during the perihelion pass (ESA & NASA/Solar Orbiter/EUI Team)

“We are already seeing some fascinating data being returned from the science instruments on board this UK-built spacecraft, bringing us closer to understanding how natural events on the Sun’s surface contribute to space weather.

“Not only are we learning from the images that Solar Orbiter is sending back, but also from what it ‘feels’ as it gets closer to the Sun, including solar flares and a recent coronal mass ejection.”

The Solar Orbiter carries 10 science instruments – nine are led by European Space Agency member states and one by Nasa – all working together to provide unprecedented insight into how the Sun works.

The orbiter’s main science goal is to explore the connection between the Sun and the heliosphere – the large bubble of space that extends beyond the planets of our Solar System.

It is filled with electrically charged particles, most of which have been expelled by the Sun to form the solar wind.

It is the movement of these particles and the associated solar magnetic fields that create space weather.

The next – and slightly closer – perihelion pass will take place on October 13 at 0.29 times the Earth-Sun distance.

Before then, on September 4, it will make its third flyby of Venus.