New “Solar Orbiter” Mission May Give New Look at Our Sun


Ian Dahl, Contributor

In a collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency, the new “Solar Orbiter” was launched at 11:03 PM EST, Sunday, at Cape Canaveral in Florida. The agencies plan to photograph the first ever images of the Sun’s northern pole and southern pole. This mission will help NASA gain a visual understanding of the Sun which could give more knowledge of the Sun’s intense magnetic field and how that field affects Earth. “Up until Solar Orbiter, all solar imaging instruments have been within the ecliptic plane or very close to it. Now, we’ll be able to look down on the sun from above,” according to Russell Howard, a principal investigator for one of Solar Orbiter’s ten instruments and a space scientist at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C.

The Solar Orbiter launched at 11:03 PM EST from Cape Canaveral on Sunday. At 12:24 AM, Monday, mission controllers from the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, intercepted a signal coming from the Solar Orbiter with info that spacecraft had launched successfully and that its solar panels had deployed. In the first two days following the spacecraft’s launch, it will begin to deploy its instrument boom and antennas that will gather scientific data and relay the information back to Earth and the spacecraft will begin its commissioning phase that will last around three months. During the commissioning phase, the mission team on Earth will check on the spacecraft’s various instruments in order to ensure they are working as intended.

The Solar Orbiter has an specific trajectory that will allow the spacecraft’s set of instruments to acquire the first-ever photos of the Sun’s pole. From now until November 2021, the Solar Orbiter will be in the mission’s cruise phase, where its instruments will begin to collect data from the spacecraft’s environments while its remote-sensing telescopes begin calibrations for the science operations near the Sun. During the cruise phase, the Solar Orbiter will receive three gravity assists, two from Venus and one from Earth, in order to draw the spacecraft’s orbit closer to the Sun. The first Venus gravity assist will take place in December 2020 and the second assist will happen in August 2021. Following the gravity assist from Earth in November 2021, the Solar Orbiter will begin the primary portion of its mission which will take the spacecraft on its first adjacent pass by the Sun in 2022.

The information that will be provided by the Solar Orbiter’s mission will greatly help scientists model and understand the Sun’s magnetic field. The Sun’s magnetic field is the main factor that drives the Sun’s activity. According to Günther Hasinger, ESA director of Science, “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, 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.” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for Science at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, also added, “Solar Orbiter is going to do amazing things. Combined with the other recently launched NASA missions to study the Sun, we are gaining unprecedented new knowledge about our star. 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.”