By Leah Crane
The Solar Orbiter, a spacecraft that will reveal new secrets of the sun, is scheduled to launch on 7 February from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The joint European Space Agency and NASA mission won’t be the first to orbit the sun – there are several already there, and the Parker Solar Probe is on its way – but it will give us a view we’ve never had before, by flying over our star’s poles.
We expect the top and bottom of the sun to look noticeably different from its middle, but we’ve never taken clear pictures of them before, said NASA’s Nicola Fox during a press briefing on 27 January. “We know that this will give us unprecedented measurements of the sun, incredible views of the poles,” said Fox.
The poles of the sun are home to huge areas called coronal holes that are cooler and less dense than their surroundings. Charged particles escape from inside the sun via these holes, and Solar Orbiter will watch this process in action.
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“What we want to do with Solar Orbiter is understand how our star creates and controls the constantly-changing space environment throughout our solar system,” said Yannis Zouganelis at the European Space Agency during the briefing. “There are still basic mysteries about our sun that remain unsolved.”
This close-up look at the sun will hopefully help us predict the solar storms and eruptions that occasionally send particles hurtling towards Earth. Those particles can damage satellites, and a big enough solar flare could even take down our electric grids. “Most researchers believe that the key to understanding how intense the next solar activity cycle is, will be first seen at the poles,” said NASA’s Chris St. Cyr.
Solar Orbiter has four telescopes to take pictures, as well as six other instruments to measure the environment around the spacecraft. If all goes well, it will make its first close pass of the sun in February 2021, at about half the distance between Earth and the sun, and will get even closer in October 2022.
All the while, the spacecraft will use the gravity of Venus to swing it further and further out of the plane of the solar system so that it can get above and below the sun to look at the poles. “Seven years from now you will see the first clear images of the sun’s pole,” said St. Cyr. If everything goes as planned, we will be able to watch the solar wind that shapes our solar system spewing out of the holes at the poles and unravel how it works.
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