Just two weeks after the sun produced its first medium-size flare of the new solar cycle, scientists offered an update on what the newest sun-studying spacecraft has been up to.
The Solar Orbiter, a partnership between NASA and the European Space Agency, launched in February on a seven-year mission to photograph the sun up close,with unprecedented views of the star's poles. And conveniently, that was just around the time when the sun began to enter a new cycle of activity, dubbed Solar Cycle 25.
"I think we timed it exactly right. I'd love to say we planned it that way," Tim Horbury, a physicist at Imperial College London in the U.K. who leads one of Solar Orbiter's instrument teams, said during a news conference held virtually at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. "We clearly didn't, but I think it's gone exactly right."
Horbury leads the scientists working on instruments that measure the spacecraft's immediate surroundings, which he said are nearly always on. "That means we've got lots of data over a long period of time," he said. "We've already basically been around the sun once."
During that time, scientists have already seen intriguing phenomena at play due to that changing solar activity as the sun continues its 11-year cycle of tamer and more active periods. "We've been in a really deep solar minimum, very low solar activity for the last couple of years, so there really wasn't a lot going on at all," Horbury said.
"The sun's field is changing even now, but let's say when we launched in February, the sun's magnetic field was relatively simple," Horbury said, with the magnetic field's equator falling right around the sun's equator itself.
And that equator has been a fruitful area for Solar Orbiter instruments. "We've actually been skimming over the top of that boundary repeatedly," Horbury said. "We're getting some really interesting measurements." As the solar cycle continues, that magnetic equator will tilt, creating new phenomena for the spacecraft to study.
The timing within the solar cycle has also allowed the Solar Orbiter team to get a good baseline sense of the sun at minimum that additional observations throughout the coming years will build upon, Frédéric Auchère, an astrophysicist at the Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale in France who leads a second instrument team encompassing the telescopes used for studying the sun from a distance, said during the same news conference.
"It's the exact best time for us also, with catching the end of the minimum, which is good because that also gives us a point of comparison with the previous minimum," Auchère said. "Now we're going to see in the next month and years the rise of the activity."
And let's be real, a more active sun is just more fun to study — characterized by dramatic events like sunspots growing and dissipating on the star's surface, flares that burst radiation out from the sun and coronal mass ejections that fling blobs out across the solar system.
"This is very exciting, because we will see more of these large events, which will look just gorgeous with our telescopes," Auchère said.
Of course, the mission is about more than dramatic imagery: its primary task is to deepen scientists' understanding of the sun's mechanics so that researchers can more accurately predict what our star will do. That can tell us what the next solar cycle may look like, but it can also warn satellite operators and astronauts of potential hazards in this so-called space weather.
"Right now, you can ask different modelers that will give you very different predictions of what the sun will look like in five to 10 years — we basically don't know really well how to do that," Auchère said. "We know the basic ingredients, but we don't know how to put them together really well so that we have predictive power."
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