Solar Orbiter launches on mission to reveal Sun’s secrets

Mon, 2020-02-10 07:04

MIAMI, United States: The US-European Solar Orbiter probe
launched Sunday night from Florida on a voyage to deepen our
understanding of the Sun and how it shapes the space weather that
impacts technology back on Earth.
The mission, a collaboration between ESA (the European Space
Agency) and NASA, successfully blasted off from the Kennedy Space
Center in Cape Canaveral at 11:03p.m. and could last up to nine
years or more.
At 12:24a.m. Monday the European Space Operations Center in
Darmstadt, Germany, received a signal from the spacecraft
indicating that its solar panels had successfully deployed.
Space Orbiter is expected to provide unprecedented insights into
the Sun’s atmosphere, its winds and its magnetic fields,
including how it shapes the heliosphere, the vast swath of space
that encompasses our system.
By journeying out of the ecliptic plane — the belt of space
roughly aligned with the Sun’s equator, through which the planets
orbit — it will acquire the first-ever images of our star’s
uncharted polar regions.
Drawing on gravity assists from Earth and Venus, Solar Orbiter will
slingshot itself into a bird’s eye view of the Sun’s poles,
reaching its primary science orbit in two years’ time.
“I think it was picture perfect, suddenly you really feel like
you’re connected to the entire solar system,” said Daniel
Muller, ESA project scientist, shortly after the launch.
“You’re here on Earth and you’re launching something that
will go close to the Sun.”
“We have one common goal and that is to get the good science out
of this mission. I think we’re going to succeed,” added Holly
Gilbert, director of NASA’s heliophysics science division.
Ten state-of-the-art instruments on board will record myriad
observations to help scientists unlock clues about what drives
solar winds and flares.
These emit billions of highly charged particles that impact the
Earth, producing the spectacular Northern Lights. But they can also
disrupt radar systems, radio networks and even, though rarely,
render satellites useless.
The largest solar storm on record hit North America in September
1859, knocking out much of the continent’s telegraph network and
bathing the skies in an aurora viewable as far away as the
“Imagine if just half of our satellites were destroyed,” said
Matthieu Berthomier, a researcher at the Paris-based Plasma Physics
Laboratory. “It would be a disaster for mankind.”
At its closest approach, Solar Orbiter will be nearer to the Sun
than Mercury, a mere 42 million kilometers away.
With a custom-designed titanium heat shield, it is built to
withstand temperatures as high as 500° Celsius. Its heat-resistant
structure is coated in a thin, black layer of calcium phosphate, a
charcoal-like powder that is similar to pigments used in
prehistoric cave paintings.
The shield will protect the instruments from extreme particle
radiation emitted from solar explosions.
All but one of the spacecraft’s telescopes will peep out through
holes in the heat shield that open and close in a carefully
orchestrated dance, while other instruments will work behind the
shadow of the shield.
Just like Earth, the Sun’s poles are extreme regions quite
different from the rest of the body. It is covered in coronal
holes, cooler stretches where fast-gushing solar wind
Scientists believe this region could be key to understanding what
drives its magnetic activity.
Every 11 years, the Sun’s poles flip: north becoming south and
vice versa. Just before this event, solar activity increases,
sending powerful bursts of solar material into space.
Solar Orbiter will observe the surface as it explodes and record
measurements as the material goes by the spacecraft.
The only spacecraft to previously fly over the Sun’s poles was
another joint ESA/NASA venture, the Ulysses, launched in 1990. But
it got no closer to the Sun than the Earth is.
“You can’t really get much closer than Solar Orbiter is going
and still look at the Sun,” ESA’s Muller said.
Solar Orbiter will use three gravity assists to draw its orbit
closer to the Sun: two past Venus in December 2020 and August 2021,
and one past Earth in November 2021, leading up to its first close
pass by the Sun in 2022.
It will work in concert with NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which
launched in 2018 and will fly much closer to the Sun, passing
through the star’s inner atmosphere to see how energy flows
through its corona.

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Source: *FS – All – Science News Net
Solar Orbiter launches on mission to reveal Sun’s secrets