European Solar Orbiter launches successfully

It is now address big scientific questions, give us first ever look at Sun's poles  

Photo: ESA Artist's impression of Solar Orbiter facing the Sun.

We all know our sun is surrounded by a great bubble-like heliosphere, which sets our solar system apart from the rest of interstellar space. But now ESA's Solar Orbiter - which launched an hour ago today – will probe how the Sun creates and controls this heliosphere.

The ESA-led mission with strong NASA participation, will also provide the first views of the Sun’s unchartered polar regions from high-latitudes, giving unprecedented insight into how our parent star works and understanding of the Sun-Earth connection.

For this to be achieved, now that it's aloft, the 1,800 -kilograms spacecraft will use several flybys of Venus, and one of Earth, to get into an unusual orbit around the sun - one that is significantly out of the ecliptic, the plane in which Earth and the other big planets circle. This unique vantage point will help fill knowledge gaps, providing prodigious scientific returns during Solar Orbiter's seven-year mission.

"Up until Solar Orbiter, all solar imaging instruments have been within the ecliptic plane or very close to it," Russell Howard, a space scientist at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, said in a statement.

"Now, we'll be able to look down on the sun from above," he added.

Additionally, the science payload of Solar Orbiter comprises 10 instruments for imaging the surface of our star and measuring the properties of the solar environment, which are both remote-sensing and in situ.

During each orbit, the complete instrument suite will be operated around closest approach, and at the minimum and maximum heliographic latitudes – the segments of the orbit where Solar Orbiter will be farthest below and above the solar equator. In the meantime, the in situ instruments will operate continuously.

Among them would be a Energetic Particle Detector (EPD), which will measure the composition, timing and distribution functions of suprathermal and energetic particles; Magnetometer to facilitate detailed studies into the way the Sun’s magnetic field links into space and evolves over the solar cycle; Solar Wind Plasma Analyser (SWA), which will measure the ion and electron bulk properties of the solar wind; and a Radio and Plasma Waves (RPW) tool, which help to determine the characteristics of electromagnetic and electrostatic waves in the solar wind. The mission will also work with NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, collecting complementary datasets that will allow more science to be distilled from the two missions than either could achieve on their own.

And even though Solar Orbiter won't get nearly that close to our star as Solar Parker, its more-distant viewing location also provides important advantages. For example, the different vantage points of Solar Orbiter and PSP will allow scientists to compare observations of solar plasma and magnetic fields at different locations in space, providing valuable context. And Solar Orbiter can look directly at the sun and take pictures, which PSP is not equipped to do.

Parker Solar Probe and Solar Orbiter will, therefore, work well together in helping scientists better understand how the sun ticks, members of both teams have said. And these researchers aim to answer some pretty big questions - how the stream of charged particles known as the solar wind is accelerated to such tremendous speeds, for example, and how exactly the sun's internal dynamo works.

This cooperation will start soon. Solar Orbiter is scheduled to begin making science measurements in May (full science operations won't commence until November 2021, however, when the probe's telescopic images will come fully online.) And given the length of both missions, the collaboration should continue through at least the mid-2020s, representative said.

Similar articles