Solar orbiter takes off to capture first look at Sun`s poles

James Marshall
February 13, 2020

A new solar probe jointly built by European and the United States space agencies has recently been set off on a blazing journey towards the sun.

Carrying four in situ instruments (which measure the space environment immediately around the spacecraft like the sense of touch) and six remote-sensing imagers (which see the sun from afar), the Solar Orbiter (called SolO) will face the sun at approximately 42 million kilometres from its surface.

Live launch coverage will begin on NASA Television and NASA Live at 10:30 p.m. EST Sunday, February 9, 2020. It will take Solar Orbiter about two years to reach its primary science orbit. After it sways through those two bodies to gain momentum, it will end up in an orbit around the Sun with a close distance of only 26 million miles, still about 100 times farther than Earth's Moon, but so close that temperatures at its peak in the spacecraft they will reach nearly 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Solar Orbiter won't fly as close to the sun, but it brings unique skills. It's also about a quarter of the distance between Earth and the Sun. "As NASA moves forward to return to the moon, Mars and beyond with our Artemis program, missions like Solar Orbiter joining our fleet become really critical". "Hopefully, we'll get to see some interesting pictures". Not long after, mission controllers in Germany confirmed that the spacecraft was well on its way. It took until now, however, for technology to allow elaborate spacecraft like Parker and Solar Orbiter to get close without being fried.

Solar Orbiter was made in Europe, along with nine scientific instruments.

The spacecraft will autonomously unfold an array of antennas and solar panels to map the sun's polar regions.

The mission aims to 'address big questions in solar system science to help us understand how our star creates and controls the giant bubble of plasma that surrounds the whole solar system and influences the planets within it, ' ESA says on its website. The full mission will formally start in November 2021.

"We have been lucky so far for the last 150 years", since a colossal solar storm that struck last. The Parker Solar Probe has been diving into the Sun's atmosphere (the corona) for a closer look and feel, in an attempt to unlock the mysteries surrounding the behaviour of the solar wind and the extreme heat of the corona.

The observations will shed light on other stars and provide clues about the potential habitability of worlds in other solar systems.

"Each instrument plays a different tune, but together they play the sun's symphony", Hasinger said. Throughout its mission, Solar Orbiter will use successive Venus gravity assists to draw its orbit closer to the Sun and lift it out of the ecliptic plane.

The launch of Solar Orbiter is the latest in string of major milestones for the field of heliophysics, including ongoing operations of Parker Solar Probe and the completion of the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope on the Hawaiian island of Maui. It has 6 devices for high-resolution photographs.

Fox considers it "a golden age" for solar physics.

"There is still so much science to do", she said, "and definitely a great time to become a heliophysicist".

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