Closest images ever taken of the sun reveal "nanoflares"

The Sun, as its never been seen before.

image of the sun

The sun as seen in ultraviolet light.

Credit: Solar Orbiter/EUI Team (ESA & NASA); CSL, IAS, MPS, PMOD/WRC, ROB, UCL/MSSL
  • ESO's Solar Orbiter has sent back new images from halfway between the Earth and the Sun.
  • The images show far more "nanoflares" than ever seen before.
  • The discovery raises more questions about how the Sun works.

    • Looking at the Sun isn't easy. If you do it by yourself, you'll get eye damage. If you do it with highly specialized scientific equipment on Earth, you'll notice the atmosphere getting in the way. For the best results, you have to look from space. This precisely what the European Space Agency did with their Solar Orbiter (SoIO) spacecraft, allowing us to get close-up pictures of the Sun that highlight every blemish and sunspot.

      How to take a picture of a giant ball of fire

      Situated 77,000,000 kilometers (48,000,000 miles) from Earth, roughly halfway to the Sun, the Solar Orbiter's cameras have taken high-quality images from a closer vantage point than any camera ever. More importantly, they can take pictures in ultraviolet light, which is highly filtered by Earth's atmosphere and challenging to do as well without being in space.

      The images, seen below, are stunning.

      orange and black close-up of the sun

      The arrow points to a "nanoflare" approximately 700 km across.


      ​These images show the sun's appearance at a wavelength of 17 nanometers, which is in the extreme ultraviolet region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Images at this wavelength reveal the upper atmosphere of the sun, the corona, with a temperature of around one million degrees. (quoted from

      Credit: Solar Orbiter/EUI Team (ESA & NASA); CSL, IAS, MPS, PMOD/WRC, ROB, UCL/MSSL

      They also help to answer a few questions about how the Sun works while raising new ones as the mission continues.

      If you look at some of these images, the top image with an arrow stands out; you will notice small white smears. These are nanoflares, also called "campfires." They are 700-kilometer-wide relatives of solar flares burning at temperatures of one million degrees, nearly 200 times hotter than the photosphere below them. One hypothesis maintains that a vast number of these could be part of the mechanism that keeps the corona, the Sun's outer atmosphere, hotter than its surface.

      ESA project scientist Daniel Müller explained this notion to the BBC:

      "The Sun has a relatively cool surface of about 5,500 degrees and is surrounded by a super-hot atmosphere of more than a million degrees. [...]There's a theory put forward by the great US physicist Eugene Parker, who conjectured that if you should have a vast number of tiny flares this might account for an omnipresent heating mechanism that could make the corona hot."

      While larger nanoflares can be seen from Earth, the images this spacecraft provided suggest they can be smaller than previously known and arise more frequently than supposed. At this moment, scientists aren't sure why they exist or what mechanisms they interact with.

      All of these images are from tests to see how the equipment operates in outer space. The probe's primary mission will take place when it reaches a point a mere 48,000,000 kilometers from the Sun. Those future pictures and data will be all the more impressive, as the Sun is currently moving out of a quiet phase and will be more active.

      However, it'll take two years to get into position, so we have plenty of time to get acquainted with the images it has already shared.

      How New York's largest hospital system is predicting COVID-19 spikes

      Northwell Health is using insights from website traffic to forecast COVID-19 hospitalizations two weeks in the future.

      Credit: Getty Images
      Sponsored by Northwell Health
      • The machine-learning algorithm works by analyzing the online behavior of visitors to the Northwell Health website and comparing that data to future COVID-19 hospitalizations.
      • The tool, which uses anonymized data, has so far predicted hospitalizations with an accuracy rate of 80 percent.
      • Machine-learning tools are helping health-care professionals worldwide better constrain and treat COVID-19.
      Keep reading Show less

      3,000-pound Triceratops skull unearthed in South Dakota

      "You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.

      Excavation of a triceratops skull in South Dakota.

      Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
      Surprising Science
      • The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
      • It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
      • Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
      Keep reading Show less

      What can Avicenna teach us about the mind-body problem?

      The Persian polymath and philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age teaches us about self-awareness.

      Photo by Andrew Spencer on Unsplash
      Mind & Brain
      Philosophers of the Islamic world enjoyed thought experiments.
      Keep reading Show less

      The incredible physics behind quantum computing

      Can computers do calculations in multiple universes? Scientists are working on it. Step into the world of quantum computing.

      • While today's computers—referred to as classical computers—continue to become more and more powerful, there is a ceiling to their advancement due to the physical limits of the materials used to make them. Quantum computing allows physicists and researchers to exponentially increase computation power, harnessing potential parallel realities to do so.
      • Quantum computer chips are astoundingly small, about the size of a fingernail. Scientists have to not only build the computer itself but also the ultra-protected environment in which they operate. Total isolation is required to eliminate vibrations and other external influences on synchronized atoms; if the atoms become 'decoherent' the quantum computer cannot function.
      • "You need to create a very quiet, clean, cold environment for these chips to work in," says quantum computing expert Vern Brownell. The coldest temperature possible in physics is -273.15 degrees C. The rooms required for quantum computing are -273.14 degrees C, which is 150 times colder than outer space. It is complex and mind-boggling work, but the potential for computation that harnesses the power of parallel universes is worth the chase.
      Keep reading Show less
      Scroll down to load more…