Lift off: Solar Orbiter on its way to the Sun


Solar Orbiter launched atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket, feating a special, unique configuration of the launch vehicle designed specifically to get the almost 4,000 lb observation craft off Earth and onto its target path to eventually approach the Sun. Though the spacecraft will spend a few years easing into its unique elliptical orbit around the Sun, once there, it will be well positioned to also study the Sun's poles up close for the first time.

At its fastest, Solar Orbiter can nearly catch up to the Sun's rate of rotation, allowing the spacecraft to hover over specific spots on the Sun as it turns and study how a single solar feature evolves over time.

On board the Solar Orbiter, there are 10 instruments to measure various phenomena and collect different types of information from the Sun, including the penetration of ultraviolet images and the measurement of the solar wind radiating from the star. The coming years should be prime time for such a study, climaxing with a peak of solar activity in the 2023-2026 time frame. They will be protected in part by way of a heat shield made from titanium and coated with a calcium phosphate coating which will absorb the majority of the 1,000-level temperatures, however, leading to a more tolerable assortment between 4 and 122 degrees Fahrenheit for the majority of the real instruments themselves. It differs from the Parker Solar Probe, by which is already past 11.6 million miles within the Sun but it's flying nowhere near the poles.

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NASA's Solar Parker Probe is also on a mission to investigate the source of these solar winds, but will do so with a particular focus on the Sun's corona, or atmosphere, and how it accelerates and pushes them along. Over the course of its mission, researchers plan to have the Solar Orbiter make 22 close approaches to the Sun. "At the end of our Solar Orbiter mission, we will know more than ever about the hidden power that is responsible for the changing behavior of the sun and its impact on our home planet".

Engineers at Airbus in Stevenage designed and built the spacecraft to withstand the scorching heat from the Sun that will hit one side, while the other is frozen as the orbit keeps it in shadow. "We're just embedded in the Sun's magnetic field", said NRL astrophysicist Robin Colaninno. The Solar Orbiter's primary scientific activity will take place during its close-encounters with the Sun, where it will fly as close as 42 million km (26 million mi), and at its higher orbits. "Go Solar Orbiter!" said Cesar Garcia Marirrodriga, project manager of the European Space Agency. "Solar Orbiter truly is a "big beast" for our United Kingdom space community". Together with powerful ground observatories, the sun-staring space duo will be like an orchestra, according to Gunther Hasinger, the scientific director of the European Space Agency.