Backyard Observatory

NASA Just Revealed the Closest-Ever Pictures of the Sun & They're Stunning

These are the first images returned from the Solar Orbiter, which launched in February.

images of the sun
Solar Orbiter/EUI Team/ESA & NASA; CSL, IAS, MPS, PMOD/WRC, ROB, UCL/MSSL

NASA and the European Space Agency's Solar Orbiter (SoIO) probe has only been cruising through space for a few months, but it unveiled the closest-ever images of the sun captured by a camera on July 16. The photos were taken at a distance of just over 47 million miles from the star's surface, about half the distance between Earth and the sun.

It just launched in February 2020, but SoIO is already providing amazing insight on the mysterious star at the center of our solar system. Importantly, these first images have revealed what researchers call campfires on the sun. The campfires are tiny relative to the size of the sun, about 400km across, but may prove to be important to understanding the sun's outer atmosphere, or corona, and why it is hotter than the surface. 

"These are only the first images, and we can already see interesting new phenomena," Daniel Müller, ESA’s Solar Orbiter Project Scientist, said. "We didn’t really expect such great results right from the start. We can also see how our ten scientific instruments complement each other, providing a holistic picture of the Sun and the surrounding environment."

new images of the sun
Solar Orbiter/EUI Team/ESA & NASA; CSL, IAS, MPS, PMOD/WRC, ROB, UCL/MSSL

"These campfires are totally insignificant each by themselves, but summing up their effect all over the Sun, they might be the dominant contribution to the heating of the solar corona," Frédéric Auchère of the Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale (IAS), France, Co-Principal Investigator of EUI, said.

The Solar Orbiter is on a series of passes that will bring it even closer to the sun. It'll get to as near as just over 26 million miles. (Earth is about 93 million miles from the sun on average.) These images were taken in mid-June, just inside the orbit of Venus, about 47,845,000 miles away. 

solar orbiter images of sun
Solar Orbiter/EUI Team/ESA & NASA; CSL, IAS, MPS, PMOD/WRC, ROB, UCL/MSSL

These are the closest images taken, but they are not the highest resolution images of the sun. Telescopes on Earth are capable of taking photos in higher resolution. 

However, the Solar Orbiter is gathering data that can enhance our understanding of the star in remarkable ways. "Solar Orbiter isn't going closer to the Sun just to get higher-resolution images: it's going closer to get into a different, less turbulent part of the solar wind, studying the particles and magnetic field in situ at that closer distance, while simultaneously taking remote data on the surface of the Sun and immediately around it for context. No other mission or telescope can do that," Mark McCaughrean, ESA's senior advisor for science and exploration, told BBC News

No matter the resolution, Thursday's unveiling shows the enormous promise of Solar Orbiter as well as showcasing a gorgeous view of the sun that we never get as we live under the star's glow.

solar orbiter sun pictures
Solar Orbiter/EUI Team/ESA & NASA; CSL, IAS, MPS, PMOD/WRC, ROB, UCL/MSSL
soalr orbiter images closest ever
Solar Orbiter/EUI Team/ESA & NASA; CSL, IAS, MPS, PMOD/WRC, ROB, UCL/MSSL

Ready to go stargazing?

Here are all the best stargazing events that you can get out and see this month or you could stay in a stream the northern lights from home. If you're just getting started, check out our guide to astronomy for beginners

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Dustin Nelson is a Senior Staff Writer at Thrillist. Follow him @dlukenelson.