A trio of satellites could capture a groundbreaking 360-degree photo of the sun

The sun is active, dynamic and occasionally violent. Unfortunately, our view of the Sun is limited to a small handful of orbiting satellites and ground-based observatories. The Solar Ring is a new proposal that hopes to radically change that picture by launching a trio of satellites around the Sun to provide continuous 360-degree panoramic images in real time. The observatory could revolutionize our understanding of our parent star.

Despite being the closest star to us, we still don’t understand most of the Sun’s physics. While we understand the big picture—that the Sun is powered by fusion reactions and the energy circulates its way to the surface and is released in the form of radiation—we don’t know the details. In particular, we do not understand mysteries such as the origin of the 11-year sunspot cycle, the incredibly high temperature of the Sun’s corona, or how solar flares and coronal mass ejections occur.

Our information about the Sun is limited because we can only take snapshots of it here and there with orbiting satellites and ground-based observatories. Often interesting activity starts on the surface of the Sun facing away from any of our observatories, and until we catch it hours later, we don’t know how it started. And other times we can see a process start to rise, but then lose its full development as the Sun spins away from our view.

Illuminating the Sun

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of a solar flare, an event that the Solar Ring could catch in its early stages.NASA/SDO

To solve this a group of astronomers proposes the Solar Ring. The Solar Ring is a fleet of three spacecraft that will all orbit the Sun. They will be separated by 120 degrees and equipped with identical instruments. That way their overlapping visual fields will make it impossible for us to miss anything happening on the surface.

Among the many kinds of observations astronomers hope to make behind the Solar Ring, one involves a technique called echo mapping. By carefully mapping the speed of the gas on the Sun’s surface, they can measure vibrations and pulses. These kinds of “solars” give astronomers rich information about what’s going on in the deepest layers, just like how earthquakes tell us about the Earth’s core and mantle.

The Solar Ring will also be able to catch the beginnings of a solar flare or explosion regardless of where it occurs on the Sun, providing even more early warning of space weather. These kinds of plasma storms can disrupt satellites and even affect electrical systems on Earth’s surface, so the more warning the better.

Astronomers behind the Solar Ring hope that with more complete coverage of the Sun, we will be able to better understand the complex nature of its surface, interior and corona.

This article was originally published on Universe today with Paul M. Sutter at the University of Illinois. Read the original article here.

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