NASA Solar Orbiter Launches, Will Give Researchers First-Ever Images of the Sun's Poles

The spacecraft is expected to take approximately two years to reach its destination

ESA/NASA Solar Orbiter
Photo: Jared Frankle/NASA Solar Orbiter Social Participant

NASA made a historic step this week towards gaining more knowledge of the sun.

On Sunday, the agency announced that they had officially launched a spacecraft called the Solar Orbiter, which is expected to journey towards the sun and take the first-ever 3D photographs of its north and south poles, according to a press release on their website.

Scientists said the launch is part of NASA’s “new collaborative mission” with the European Space Agency (ESA) to learn more about the “hidden force responsible for the Sun’s changing behavior and its influence on our home planet.”

“As humans, we have always been familiar with the importance of the Sun to life on Earth, observing it and investigating how it works in detail, but we have also long known it has the potential to disrupt everyday life should we be in the firing line of a powerful solar storm,” ESA Director of Science Günther Hasinger said in a press release. “By the end of our Solar Orbiter mission, we will know more… than ever before.”

Solar Orbiter took off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 11:03 p.m. ET Sunday, NASA said. Not long after, mission controllers in Germany confirmed that the spacecraft was well on its way.

“At 12:24 a.m. Monday, mission controllers at the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, received a signal from the spacecraft indicating that its solar panels had successfully deployed,” the press release stated.

Before scientists can capture any new images, the mission team will spend the first three months in a “commissioning phase” to ensure the spacecraft’s 10 scientific instruments, including a Magnetometer and Extreme Ultraviolet Imager, are working properly, according to NASA.

“In the first two days after launch, Solar Orbiter will deploy its instrument boom and several antennas that will communicate with Earth and gather scientific data,” the press release said.

Once it is confirmed that these instruments are effective, Solar Orbiter will continue on its “unique trajectory” to the sun — one that is expected to take about two years.

“This trajectory includes 22 close approaches to the Sun, bringing the spacecraft within the orbit of Mercury to study the Sun and its influence on space,” NASA officials stated.

Along the way, researchers will break the journey up into phases. The first one, the cruise phase, will last until November 2021 and use Solar Orbiter’s in-situ instruments to obtain information about the environment around the spacecraft, such as electric and magnetic fields.

During that phase, the Solar Orbiter will also use three gravity assists — two past Venus in December 2020 and August 2021, and one past Earth in November 2021 — to get closer to the sun.

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After that, a primary phase will take place into 2022, during which Solar Orbiter will focus on getting even closer to the sun and using its Venus gravity assists to “lift it out of the ecliptic plane” where the planets typically orbit to get better and unprecedented views of the sun’s poles, NASA said.

The launch comes 30 years after a previous ESA-NASA mission, Ulysses, took off in 1990 and provided scientists with their first measurements of the space around the sun in an inclined orbit.

“Solar Orbiter is going to do amazing things. Combined with the other recently launched NASA missions to study the Sun, we are gaining unprecedented new knowledge about our star,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for Science at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, said in the release.

“Together with our European partners, we’re entering a new era of heliophysics that will transform the study of the Sun and help make astronauts safer as they travel on Artemis program missions to the Moon,” Zurbuchen added.

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