A British space probe has captured the closest images ever taken of the Sun.
The Solar Orbiter has discovered that mini solar flares called “camp fires” are constantly erupting on its surface.
Designed and built in the UK, it is part of a mission to understand how solar flares may trigger electricity blackouts across Europe.
Such major Space weather events can disrupt satellites and other infrastructure that mobile phones, transport, GPS signals and the electricity networks rely on.
Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “The Solar Orbiter was eight years in the making, and represents an incredible feat of UK engineering.
“Now this spacecraft has helped us make this historic discovery of the ‘campfires’ near the surface of the Sun.
“This mission is one of the UK’s most important space ventures for a generation.”
The Solar Orbiter was constructed by Airbus in Stevenage and blasted off from Nasa’s Cape Canaveral site in Florida on February 10.
It has been designed to withstand the scorching heat from the Sun that will hit one side, while maintaining freezing temperatures on the other side of the spacecraft as the orbit keeps it in shadow.
The spacecraft will make a close approach to the Sun every five months, and at its closest will only be 26 million miles away, closer than the planet Mercury.
Dr Caroline Harper, head of space science at the UK Space Agency, said scientists were excited by the presence of campfires that are “millions of times smaller than the solar flares”.
She said: “The science will allow us to start improving our operational capability to predict the Space weather, just like you predict the weather here on Earth.”
Occasionally the Sun erupts giant amounts of particles which slam into Earth’s magnetic field, generating surges of electrical current.
Solar scientists do not have reliable ways to predict such an eruption.
The largest one known to hit Earth was the Carrington event in 1859, named after one of the people who observed an intensely bright spot on the Sun where the eruption occurred
The surge caused some telegraph wires to catch fire.
A similar event today could cause a continent-wide blackout by destroying giant transformers on the electric grid, which could take years to repair.
Satellite services such as communications, navigation and Earth observation supporting wider industrial activities are worth £300 billion to the UK economy.
The UK provided funding for four of the 10 scientific instruments on board the European Space Agency mission.
The campfires were captured by the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager developed by scientists at University College London.
Dr David Long, of UCL, said: “No images have been taken of the Sun at such a close distance before and the level of detail they provide is impressive.
“They show miniature flares across the surface of the Sun, which look like campfires that are millions of times smaller than the solar flares that we see from Earth.
“Dotted across the surface, these small flares might play an important role in a mysterious phenomenon called coronal heating.
“We are looking forward to investigating this further as Solar Orbiter gets closer to the Sun and our home star becomes more active.”
Coronal heating sees the outer layer of the Sun up to 500 times hotter than the layers below.
Dr Harper added: “These campfires may be contributing to that in a way we do not know yet.”
The mission will also analyse the solar wind – a stream of highly energetic particles emitted by the star.