Launched from Cape Canaveral in February, the joint NASA/European spacecraft "Solar Orbiter" has returned the closest images ever taken of the sun.
Flying about halfway between Earth and the sun, nearly 48 million miles from each, Solar Orbiter snapped the pictures sometime last month. NASA released the high-resolution images on Thursday.
The images, far more detailed than expected, thrilled scientists.
The Royal Observatory of Belgium's David Berghmans, principal scientist of the instrument that captured the images, said he was blown away. He said his first response was: "This is not possible. It cannot be that good."
"It was really much better than we expected, but what we dared to hope for," Berghmans said.
The images were so precise that they revealed a sea of tiny solar flare-ups covering the sun's surface that had never been observed before. The team working with Solar Orbiter coined the term "campfires" to describe the phenomenon. Over the coming months, they hope to conduct more measurements and determine the precise function and purpose of the campfires.
"The campfires we are talking about here are the little nephews of solar flares, at least a million, perhaps a billion times smaller," Berghmans said. "When looking at the new high resolution EUI images, they are literally everywhere we look."
Calling it "just the beginning of the long epic journey of Solar Orbiter," European Space Agency scientist David Muller says the instrument will continue getting closer to the sun, with the ultimate goal of providing the first ever photographs of the solar poles.
The Solar Orbiter spacecraft is a $1.5 billion joint investment between the international space organizations.