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Taking Solar Science to New Heights

Taking Solar Science to New Heights

We’re on the verge of launching a new spacecraft to the Sun to take the first-ever images of the Sun’s north and south poles!

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Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Solar Orbiter is a collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA. After it launches — as soon as Feb. 9 — it will use Earth’s and Venus’s gravity to swing itself out of the ecliptic plane — the swath of space, roughly aligned with the Sun’s equator, where all the planets orbit. From there, Solar Orbiter’s bird’s eye view will give it the first-ever look at the Sun’s poles.

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Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

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 potential solar storms, scientists monitor the Sun’s magnetic field. But from our perspective near Earth and from other satellites roughly aligned with Earth’s orbit, we can only see a sidelong view of the Sun’s poles. It’s a bit like trying to study Mount Everest’s summit from the base of the mountain.

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Solar Orbiter will study the Sun’s magnetic field at the poles using a combination of in situ instruments — which study the environment right around the spacecraft — and cameras that look at the Sun, its atmosphere and outflowing material in different types of light. Scientists hope this new view will help us understand not only the Sun’s day-to-day activity, but also its roughly 11-year activity cycles, thought to be tied to large-scales changes in the Sun’s magnetic field.

Solar Orbiter will fly within the orbit of Mercury — closer to our star than any Sun-facing cameras have ever gone — so the spacecraft relies on cutting-edge technology to beat the heat.

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Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Solar Orbiter has a custom-designed titanium heat shield with a calcium phosphate coating that withstands temperatures more than 900 degrees Fahrenheit — 13 times the solar heating that spacecraft face in Earth orbit. Five of the cameras look at the Sun through peepholes in that heat shield; one observes the solar wind out the side.

Over the mission’s seven-year lifetime, Solar Orbiter will reach an inclination of 24 degrees above the Sun’s equator, increasing to 33 degrees with an additional three years of extended mission operations. At closest approach the spacecraft will pass within 26 million miles of the Sun.

Solar Orbiter will be our second major mission to the inner solar system in recent years, following on August 2018’s launch of Parker Solar Probe. Parker has completed four close solar passes and will fly within 4 million miles of the Sun at closest approach.

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Solar Orbiter (green) and Parker Solar Probe (blue) will study the Sun in tandem. 

The two spacecraft will work together: As Parker samples solar particles up close, Solar Orbiter will capture imagery from farther away, contextualizing the observations. The two spacecraft will also occasionally align to measure the same magnetic field lines or streams of solar wind at different times.

Watch the launch

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The booster of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket that will launch the Solar Orbiter spacecraft is lifted into the vertical position at the Vertical Integration Facility near Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Jan. 6, 2020. Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

Solar Orbiter is scheduled to launch on Feb. 9, 2020, during a two-hour window that opens at 11:03 p.m. EST. The spacecraft will launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 411 rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Launch coverage begins at 10:30 p.m. EST on Feb. 9 at nasa.gov/live. Stay up to date with mission at nasa.gov/solarorbiter!

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