For Daniel Müller, a solar physicist at the European Space Agency, there are two suns. There’s the one that hangs in the sky and warms his skin as he walks along the coastline near his home in the Netherlands. And there’s the one that exists indoors, on his computer screen, which he can stare at for hours, studying the swirls in a fiery landscape.
As much as he enjoys a sunny walk on the beach, Müller has been basking in the other version of our star this summer: A recently launched spacecraft has captured the closest images ever taken of the sun and sent them back to Earth.
The images show the sun in glowing detail. They were captured by telescopes on Solar Orbiter (a delightfully straightforward name for a mission) as the spacecraft zoomed past the sun. The hot plasma resembles a portrait of storm clouds rendered in gold tones.
To the untrained eye, these are pretty pictures, but to scientists such as Müller, they might provide important information about a star that, despite its close proximity and decades of research, the scientific community is still trying to understand.
Take a closer look at the images from Solar Orbiter and you’ll see sparks of light nestled in the plasma swirls. Each pinprick is a solar flare, an explosion of energy most likely caused by the tangling of magnetic fields.
On Earth, these smaller flares could stretch from Washington, D.C., to New York City. By the sun’s standards, they are tiny, producing only about a billionth of the energy of flares that can be detected from the ground and even temporarily knock out our communications.