NASA has announced that the Solar Orbiter, a spacecraft that will reveal new details of the sun, is scheduled to launch later on February 7 from Cape Canaveral in Florida.
NASA is set to launch the spacecraft thanks to the space organization’s collaboration with European Space Agency or ESA. Following the launch, the spacecraft will use Venus’s and Earth’s gravity in order to enter an unusual orbit around the sun. While there are other spacecrafts already orbiting the sun, the upcoming mission will give scientists a never seen before view by over our star’s poles.
“Up until Solar Orbiter, all solar imaging instruments have been within the ecliptic plane or very close to it,” said Russell Howard, space scientist at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C. and principal investigator for one of Solar Orbiter’s ten instruments. “Now, we’ll be able to look down on the Sun from above.”
“It will be terra incognita,” said Daniel Müller, ESA project scientist for the mission at the European Space Research and Technology Centre in the Netherlands. “This is really exploratory science.”
The Sun plays a central role in shaping space around us. Its massive magnetic field stretches far beyond Pluto, paving a superhighway for charged solar particles known as the solar wind. When bursts of solar wind hit Earth, they can spark space weather storms that interfere with our GPS and communications satellites — at their worst, they can even threaten astronauts.
To prepare for arriving solar storms, scientists monitor the Sun’s magnetic field. But their techniques work best with a straight-on view; the steeper the viewing angle, the noisier the data. The sidelong glimpse we get of the Sun’s poles from within the ecliptic plane leaves major gaps in the data.
“The poles are particularly important for us to be able to model more accurately,” said Holly Gilbert, NASA project scientist for the mission at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “For forecasting space weather events, we need a pretty accurate model of the global magnetic field of the Sun.”
The upcoming launch is coming just 18 months following NASA’s Parker Solar Probe mission. Since the launch, the PSP has got closer to the sun than any other spacecraft while travelling at a faster speed. When the PSP completes is seven-year mission, the spacecraft will get within 3.83 million miles (6.16 million km) of the solar surface and reach top speeds of around 430,000 mph (700,000 km/h) relative to the sun.
Solar Orbiter on the other hand, will not be getting as close to our sun as the spacecraft’s unique orbit will take it within 26 million miles of the solar surface on its closest approach. However, both of the spacecrafts will work together to help researchers understand how the sun works. This in turn will help the scientists explain some of the biggest questions we have regarding our solar system such as the stream of charged particles known as the solar wind is accelerated to such tremendous speeds.