NASA, ESA Launch Solar Orbiter Toward Sun’s Poles


A new NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) mission to study the Sun’s poles launched Sunday night.

Solar Orbiter took off at 11:03 p.m. ET on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

By 12:30 a.m. Monday, mission controllers at the European Space Operations Center in Germany received a signal from the spacecraft, indicating its solar panels successfully deployed.

Solar Orbiter’s unique trajectory and comprehensive set of instruments will provide the first-ever images of the Sun’s north and south poles.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rockets lifts off with the Solar Orbiter spacecraft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida (via NASA)

“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,” Günther Hasinger, ESA director of science, said in a statement. “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.

“By the end of our Solar Orbiter mission, we will know more about the hidden force responsible for the Sun’s changing behavior and its influence on our home planet than ever before,” he added.

It will take the spacecraft about two years to reach its primary orbit. In the meantime, the Earth-bound mission team is busy ensuring the probe’s multiple scientific instruments are in working order.

Solar Orbiter is expected to make its first close pass by the Sun in 2022, drawing ever closer with successive Venus and Earth assists.

Previous NASA/ESA mission Ulysses launched in 1990, gathering scientists’ first measurements of the space around the Sun in the polar regions. Technological advancements over the past three decades, however, means Solar Orbiter will be able to achieve even more.

“Solar Orbiter is going to do amazing things,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, boasted. “Combined with the other recently launched NASA missions to study the Sun, we are gaining unprecedented new knowledge about our star.”

The space agency in 2018 launched the Parker Solar Probe to repeatedly observe the outer corona of the Sun. But while Parker samples particles from up close, Solar Orbiter will snap photos from far away to heighten observations.

“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,” according to Zurbuchen.

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