The Sun undergoes an 11-year cycle of activity, characterized by brilliant explosions, dark sunspots, plasma loops, and swirls of super-hot gas. This activity is driven by the solar dynamo, a process that generates the Sun’s magnetic field. At the start of this cycle (the solar minimum), there is little activity and few sunspots. As the cycle progresses, activity increases until it peaks (the solar maximum) before decreasing again to another minimum.
The most recent solar minimum occurred in December 2019, just two months before Solar Orbiter launched. Early views from the spacecraft showed that in February 2021 the Sun was still relatively calm. However, we are now approaching solar maximum, which is expected to occur in 2025. Recent observations taken during a close approach to the Sun in October 2023 reveal a striking increase in solar activity. This suggests that the maximum may arrive earlier than expected, up to a year sooner.
Solar Orbiter will help us predict the timing and strength of future solar cycles, which is critical because extreme eruptions can have devastating effects on Earth’s infrastructure and orbiting satellites. Images taken by Solar Orbiter’s Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) instrument show the Sun’s upper atmosphere at temperatures of around a million degrees Celsius. EUI helps scientists investigate mysterious heating processes that occur in the Sun’s outer regions by viewing it in ultraviolet light, which is invisible to human eyes. The yellow color added to these images helps us visualize our changing Sun. Solar Orbiter is an international collaboration between ESA and NASA operated by ESA.
In summary, Solar Orbiter will play a vital role in helping scientists understand and predict future solar cycles and their potential impact on Earth’s environment and technology infrastructure. By studying the Sun’s upper atmosphere through EUI imaging technology, we can gain insight into mysterious heating processes that occur deep within our star.
Solar cycles are essential for life on Earth as they provide energy from sunlight that sustains our ecosystems and drives climate patterns. Understanding these cycles helps us prepare for extreme weather events caused by changes in sunlight intensity or disruptions to Earth’s magnetic field.
Recent studies have shown that extreme space weather events such as coronal mass ejections (CMEs) can cause significant damage to ground-based electricity grids and satellite systems worldwide. These events can disrupt communication networks, navigation systems, power grids and even lead to blackouts or other emergencies.
Solar Orbiter provides scientists with an unprecedented opportunity to study these phenomena directly from space without being affected by Earth’s atmosphere or magnetosphere.
Overall Solar Orbiter mission represents a significant leap forward in our understanding of our own star system and its impact on life on earth