Solar Orbiter to reveal uncharted north and south poles of sun
Solar Orbiter, a collaboration between the European Space Agency, or ESA, and NASA, will give us the first-ever look at the sun's poles.
The Solar Orbiter, a new spacecraft built jointly by the U.S. and European space agencies will soon start its journey to the sun to capture an unprecedented view of the polar regions of our home star.
The spacecraft, on a 10-year mission, will lift off from a Florida launch pad on 04:00 GMT Monday. It is expected to reach its vantage point above the planetary plane by the end of 2021 and capture the images of the star at an angle that could help researchers understand how the star’s vast bubble of magnetic energy affects Earth.
Scientists say that mapping the sun’s poles could allow them for the first time to observe the concentrated source of solar wind — a stream of plasma and charged particles that beam outward and sustains the solar system’s protective outer bubble that breathes in and out in harmony with the solar wind.
"Where did that plasma, the solar wind come from? At any one point, the majority of it during our solar cycle comes from the polar regions we’ve never imaged," said Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of NASA’s science directorate.
The Ulysses spacecraft, a joint ESA/NASA venture launched in 1990, was the only prior spacecraft to fly over the Sun’s poles. It had made three passes around the sun before it was decommissioned in 2009. While Ulysses only carried what’s known as in situ instruments — which measure the space environment immediately around the spacecraft -- the Solar Orbiter carries four in situ instruments and six remote-sensing imagers, which will let it see the sun from afar.
In the Orbiter, a suite of 10 instruments, including six telescopes, are intricately tucked behind a protective heat shield that can withstand temperatures of nearly 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit as the spacecraft reaches just 26 million miles from the sun or 95 per cent of the distance between the star and Earth.
The heat shield is coated with a thin, black layer of calcium phosphate, a charcoal-like powder much like pigments used in cave paintings thousands of years ago.
“It’s funny that something as technologically advanced as this is actually very old,” said Anne Pacros, the payload manager at the European Space Agency.
Using a gravity assist from Earth and Venus, the orbiter will sling itself closer to the sun and eventually sync with its rotation - once every 25 days - when the probe reaches its closest point, and open up a cluster of tiny windows on the heat shield to capture and surveil how the surface of the sun changes over time.
The fruits of the mission will inform how NASA can protect its astronauts from the radiation whizzing around the cosmos, which can cause DNA damage and changes in gene expression.
Scientists will also learn how space weather wreaks havoc on satellites and electronics on and around Earth.
In 2018 NASA launched the Parker Solar Probe to journey closer to the sun than any other human-made object, 3.8 million miles (6.1 million km), and find out how the sun churns space weather in our solar system.
(With inputs from Reuters)