The Sun goes through a cycle of activity that lasts approximately 11 years, during which we observe an increase in brilliant explosions, dark sunspots, loops of plasma, and swirls of super-hot gas. This activity is caused by the ‘solar dynamo’, the process responsible for generating the Sun’s magnetic field. At the beginning of this cycle (the solar minimum), there is little to no activity and few sunspots. As we approach solar maximum, activity increases steadily until it peaks and then decreases again to a minimum.
In December 2019, the most recent solar minimum occurred just two months before Solar Orbiter launched. During its early views in February 2021, the Sun was relatively calm. However, as we approach solar maximum in 2025, Solar Orbiter’s more recent views taken during a close approach to the Sun in October 2023 show a striking increase in solar activity. This increase in activity supports recent theories that the maximum could arrive up to a year earlier than expected.
Solar Orbiter’s mission aims to help us predict the timing and strength of solar cycles accurately. Despite its notoriously challenging nature, this information is crucial because extreme eruptions can damage ground-based electricity grids and disable orbiting satellites. The images were captured by Solar Orbiter’s Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) instrument, which reveals the Sun’s upper atmosphere with temperatures around a million degrees Celsius. EUI helps scientists investigate mysterious heating processes that occur in the Sun’s outer regions. Since EUI views the Sun in ultraviolet light, which is invisible to human eyes, we visualize our changing Sun with a yellow color added for clarity purposes. Solar Orbiter is an international collaboration between ESA and NASA operated by ESA. The Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) instrument is led by Royal Observatory of Belgium.
In conclusion, Solar Orbiter plays an essential role in understanding solar cycles better by helping us predict their timing and strength accurately. With its advanced imaging technology and scientific research capabilities, this spacecraft mission has significant implications for life on Earth as it can prevent severe consequences such as ground-based electricity grid damage and satellite disruption caused by extreme eruptions on the sun.
As we continue our journey towards solar maximum in 2025, it becomes increasingly important to monitor solar activity closely using instruments like EUI on Solar Orbiter to anticipate any changes that may affect our planet significantly.
Overall, studying our changing sun through space missions like Solar Orbiter will help us understand our star better and improve our ability to prepare for potential hazards caused by these natural events while also contributing to scientific research that could advance humanity’s knowledge about space exploration and study beyond Earth’s boundaries.