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Solar Orbiter Captures Intense Activity as Sun Approaches Cycle Peak
Solar Orbiter is a space mission of international collaboration between ESA and NASA, operated by ESA. The Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) instrument is led by the Royal Observatory of Belgium.
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Solar Orbiter Captures Intense Activity as Sun Approaches Cycle Peak
by Erica Marchand
Paris, France (SPX) Feb 15, 2024

As the Sun inches closer to the apex of its magnetic activity cycle, the European Space Agency's Solar Orbiter has provided unprecedented snapshots highlighting a significant uptick in solar phenomena. These include more frequent and intense solar explosions, darkly spotted regions indicating sunspots, looping plasma formations, and turbulent swirls of super-heated gas. The observations mark a stark contrast to the Sun's demeanor from early 2021 to October 2023, showcasing the dynamic nature of our closest star.

The solar cycle, an approximately 11-year periodic fluctuation in the Sun's magnetic activity, is driven by the solar dynamo mechanism responsible for generating the Sun's magnetic field. This cycle transitions from periods of minimal activity, characterized by few sunspots and low solar flare activity, to a solar maximum, where the Sun exhibits a dramatic increase in these phenomena. The cycle's influence is profound, affecting not just the solar system's space weather but also having tangible impacts on Earth's power grids and satellite operations.

Following the most recent solar minimum in December 2019, which occurred just two months after the Solar Orbiter's launch, initial observations made in February 2021 depicted a relatively serene Sun. However, images captured during a close approach in October 2023 reveal a different scenario, one that underscores the Sun's awakened state as it progresses towards the expected 2025 solar maximum. These latest observations lend credence to emerging theories suggesting the upcoming maximum might arrive sooner than previously anticipated, potentially altering forecasts and models of solar activity.

The Solar Orbiter's contributions extend beyond mere observation. Its mission aims to refine our understanding and prediction capabilities regarding solar cycles. Despite the challenges inherent in forecasting solar activity, accurately predicting the timing and intensity of these cycles is crucial. Extreme solar eruptions pose a risk to Earth's infrastructure, capable of disrupting electricity networks and disabling satellites in orbit.

At the heart of these observations is the Solar Orbiter's Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI), an instrument engineered to peer into the Sun's upper atmosphere, where temperatures soar to around a million degrees Celsius. The EUI's capability to capture the Sun in ultraviolet light, a spectrum invisible to the naked eye, has been instrumental in unveiling the processes heating the Sun's outer regions. To aid in visualizing these ultraviolet observations, a yellow color is added to the images, offering a new perspective on the evolving solar landscape.

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