Solar Orbiter Mission Launched to Study the Sun

The only other spacecraft to observe the poles of the sun was the ESA/NASA Ulysses mission, launched in 1990, but that spacecraft did not have a camera

FREMONT, CA: A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 411 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Solar Orbiter spacecraft separated from the Centaur upper stage nearly 53 minutes later, and the European Space Agency acquired the first signals from the spacecraft a few minutes later.

The 1,800 kg Solar Orbiter, built by Airbus Defence and Space for ESA, carries ten instruments to study the sun and the environment around the spacecraft, the last effort in what scientists are calling a “golden age” for studying the sun.

Partnering on the mission is NASA, which is supplying an instrument called Heliospheric Imager along with components of other instruments and the launch itself. The total mission cost is $1.5 billion, counting both contributions of ESA and NASA.

Solr aOrbiter sports a sun-shield to protect the spacecraft and instruments from the sun’s heat, based on the one that ESA’s BepiColombo mission to Mercury uses since the spacecraft gets to within 42 million kilometers of the sun, just inside the orbit of Mercury.

Scientists intend to use the Solar Orbiter to answer critical questions about the sun, such as its magnetic field, the formation of the solar wind, and how solar activities like flares and coronal mass ejections affect solar weather at the Earth.

What makes the Solar Orbiter different is its ability to observe the poles of the sun. The spacecraft will conduct a series of flybys of Venus to increase the inclination of the orbit around the sun, allowing it to see the poles of the sun. By 2025, the orbit will incline in such a way that the spacecraft is at solar latitude of 17 degrees when it makes its closest approach to the sun, rising to 33 degrees by 2029.

The Solar Orbiter will make its initial close approach to the sun, inside the orbit of Mercury, in October 2022. However, the spacecraft will come about halfway between the Earth and the sun in June. The full mission will formally start in November 2021.

Designed to last at least ten years, the mission will coordinate its observations with the Parker Solar Probe (launched in August 2018 by NASA), particularly during Parker’s close approaches to the sun that will bring it as close as 6.2 million kilometers to the sun. The two spacecraft will be able to provide complementary sets of observations.

The launch of Solar Orbiter is the latest in a string of significant 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. The National Science Foundation released the first images of the sun taken by that observatory on Jan. 29, the largest in the world devoted to observing the sun, showing its capability of producing the highest-resolution images of the sun’s photosphere and seeing features as small as 30 kilometers across.

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