Count down to launch of Solar Orbiter mission to study Sun's poles

Katie Ramirez
February 11, 2020

The Solar Orbiter spacecraft was launched tonight to begin a seven-year, $1.5 billion mission aimed at studying the sun and its mysterious magnetic field from an unprecedented vantage point.

The Solar Orbiter, built by NASA and the European Space agency is on a 10-year-voyage with the aim of taking a close up look at the sun's poles.

"The goal of Solar Orbiter is of course to understand better the sun and understand in particular the processes that occur inside the sun and on the surface of the sun which also affect directly our life on earth: for example the solar wind, the cycle of the sun, the solar cycle with solar spots, the magnetic field of the sun".

"In the first two days after launch, Solar Orbiter will deploy its instrument boom and several antennas that will communicate with Earth and gather scientific data", the press release said. "By the end of our Solar Orbiter mission, we will know more about the hidden force responsible for the Sun's changing behaviour and its influence on our home planet than ever before".

Although Solar Orbiter will not venture close enough to penetrate the sun's corona or a crown-like outdoor atmosphere, such as Parker, it will maneuver into a unique runway outside the aircraft that will take over both poles that have never been photographed before.

Furthermore, the chief scientist at the UK Space Agency, Mr. Chris Lee goes on by stating that the Solar Orbiter is the most important UK space-science mission for a generation.

Solar Orbiter will carry 10 state-of-the-art instruments. The probe will use these tools to investigate how the Sun generates its heliosphere, the giant bubble that extends to the edges of the Solar System that consists of the solar winds that it emits. It will face intense solar radiation that is 13 times more powerful than that in Earth's orbit.

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Like Earth's own North and South poles, the Sun's poles are extreme regions quite different from the rest of the Sun.

The reason for the multiple gravity slingshots is that the Solar Orbiter ultimately has to escape the orbital plane of the planets, which circle the sun's equator. It will then spend the next three-and-a-half years moving closer to the Sun, ending up in a highly elliptical orbit; at its closest, the orbiter should achieve a quarter of the distance between Earth and the Sun.

The only spacecraft to previously fly over the Sun's poles was another joint ESA/NASA venture, the Ulysses, launched in 1990.

The entire thing is protected by a titanium shield; as its instruments set to work, the probe will be peeking at the Sun from behind this protective layer.

"Up until Solar Orbiter, all solar imaging instruments have been within the ecliptic plane or very close to it", according to Russell Howard, space scientist at the Naval Research Lab in Washington. Ultimately, solar scientists want to be able to predict space weather in much the same way meteorologists predict terrestrial weather.

The remote-sensing instruments will be activated on Solar Orbiter's first approach of the Sun, in November 2021.

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