NASA and ESA set to launch Solar Orbiter on mission towards the sun

The Solar Orbiter (SolO), a space probe created to take the closest pictures of the sun that the world has ever seen, will be launched from the Cape Canaveral base in Florida around 23:03 EST Sunday (6:03 IST, Monday).

The joint project, developed at Airbus defense compound is being led by the European Space Agency, launching in conjunction with NASA, has been identified by scientists as the United Kingdom’s most important space mission of the generation. The structure itself, roughly the size of a U-Haul truck, accommodates 10 different instruments – designed to take images of the sun’s surface, and additionally gauge the atmosphere and magnetic field surrounding the star.

SolO’s main mission will be to measure and study the Sun’s behavior – producing images unprecedented in detail – allowing scientists to correlate these findings into optimizing the technologies we use here on Earth. Specifically to determine what causes the star’s 11-year life cycle, alternating between times of fervid activity to times of tranquility – moving between a state of solar maximum to solar minimum and vice versa.

“We understand the cyclic behavior; we’ve observed it for 400 years, ever since people have pointed the telescope at the Sun,” Daniel Müller, an ESA’s project scientist for the SolO mission, told The Verge. “But we don’t really know why it is 11 years and obviously [what drives] the strength of the cycle.”

SolO will also observe both the North and South poles of the sun, something scientists have never been able to see before – observing the solar winds constantly thrown off the sun, or the extended atmosphere of the G-type main-sequence star if you will.

“It can be steady. It can be fast. It can be very eruptive,” Dr. Louise Harra, a space physicist working on the mission, told the BBC. “[Solar Orbiter] will be looking at all those different sources and trying to understand where it comes from and how it propagates towards us at Earth.”

Normally, when scientists study the sun it rotates past them making it impossible to follow the desired area, however, SolO will be able to hover over and follow one section of the sun in order to see how it’s behavior develops around a focal point. Up until now, all probes sent in the direction of the sun have been forced to stick around star’s mid-section, orbiting in line with the planets in the Solar System – but SolO will be orbiting from a higher angle, allowing it to get under and over top the sun to witness what has never been seen before.

However, considering SolO is taking pictures of the sun, it will settle in space at 42 million kilometers (26 million miles) away due to the brightness of the sun – in order to get a clear indication of the sun’s behavior and composition – not traveling as close as other non-visual satellite probes such as NASA’s 2018 Parker Solar Probe, which came closer to the sun than any spacecraft before it, gathering important data on the celestial body.

“There’s an amazing amount of synergy between these two missions,” Müller told The Verge. “They’re not really competing with each other. They really have complimentary focal points.”

It will use telescopes protected by heat shields, partially made of baked animal bones and coated with a special material called SolarBlack, to allow SolO withstand temperatures reaching up to 600 degrees Celsius (1,112 degrees Fahrenheit). Such extreme heats, that if dust were to be left on one of the lenses of the telescope before launch, it would literally bake itself into the instrument causing damage to the apparatuses.

“Behind the heat shield the rest of the spacecraft is hiding, and we have to keep that heat shield pointing at the Sun for the entire duration, unless we’re doing maneuvers,” Ian Walters, the project manager for Solar Orbiter at Airbus said.

“Exploration space is expensive, but the things that can happen from the technology spin-offs from this mission. We don’t know what those will be yet, but there’s been a lot of developments that will undoubtedly have applications to us – in everyday life, in 10, 20 years’ time,” Harra concluded.

“This is really something that no one can tell you what will it look like exactly,” Müller concluded. “But we really hope that we can fill in this blind spot in our knowledge of the Sun.”

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