Solar Orbiter passes historically close to sun on Saturday

Fiery ball of the sun with probe at bottom.
Solar Orbiter making its close pass by the sun, from within the orbit of Mercury. Montage image via ESA.

The Solar Orbiter spacecraft will make a historic first close pass of the sun on March 26, 2022. On this date, Solar Orbiter will be less than 1/3 the distance from the sun to Earth. That’s 29.8 million miles (48 million km) or about 1/3 of an astronomical unit (AU). It can survive this distance for an extended period of time. As Solar Orbiter reaches perihelion – its closest point to the sun – it will have all 10 instruments operating in order to provide views and data unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Solar orbiter: Graphic with sun at upper left, spacecraft at center, earth below and people at computers.
View larger. | Solar Orbiter will get a good look at solar features as it passes closest to the sun on March 26, 2022. Image via ESA.

Solar Orbiter’s closest pass of the sun

Solar Orbiter will gather a variety of information from the sun. It will use its Extreme Ultraviolet Imager for high-resolution views. In-situ instruments will measure the solar wind as it flows past the spacecraft. Full-disk telescopes will identify dynamic activity – such as churning sunspots – on the surface. The narrow-angle imager will mark these locations for follow-up observations.

Because the instruments are fixed on the spacecraft, Solar Orbiter looks for targets using its wide-angle cameras to identify locations for future observations with its narrow-angle instruments. On the ground, teams in Germany and Spain coordinate the observing targets of interest.

Diagram of Solar Orbiter pointing out 10 instruments with labels.
View larger. | The 10 instruments of Solar Orbiter. Image via ESA.

Solar Orbiter vs Parker Solar Probe

Another solar instrument, the Parker Solar Probe, is also orbiting and studying the sun. This spacecraft holds the record for closest approach to the sun. While Solar Orbiter’s perihelion will take it inside the orbit of Mercury, Parker Solar Probe will eventually pass within 3.8 million miles (6.2 million kilometers) of the sun’s surface. But Solar Orbiter holds a larger suite of instruments in its mission to understand the sun.

Stay tuned to find out what exciting discoveries Solar Orbiter makes at the sun during its perihelion passage!

In the meantime, enjoy this image of the sun that Solar Orbiter took on March 7, 2022, when it was at 0.5 AU. See how far you can scroll in on stunning solar features.

Bottom line: Solar Orbiter will make a historically close pass of the sun on March 26, 2022. All 10 of its instruments will be operating to acquire close-up data.


March 26, 2022

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Kelly Kizer Whitt

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