Sun, Feb 09, 2020 - Page 5 News List

Sun probe to launch today


A NASA illustration issued on Wednesday shows the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter against the backdrop of the sun.

Photo: EPA-EFE

A new spacecraft built jointly by US and European space agencies is ready for a blazing journey to the sun to capture an unprecedented view of its two poles, an angle that could help researchers understand how the star’s vast bubble of magnetic energy affects Earth.

The Solar Orbiter spacecraft is to lift off from a Florida launch pad today at 11:03pm and autonomously unfold an array of solar panels and antennas before carrying on toward the sun for a 10-year mission mapping its polar regions.

Mapping the sun’s poles could allow scientists 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.

A suite of 10 instruments, including six telescopes, are intricately tucked behind a protective heat shield that can withstand temperatures of nearly 540°C as the spacecraft reaches just 42 million kilometers from the sun, or 95 percent of the distance between it and Earth.

Using a gravity assist from Earth and Venus, the orbiter is to 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.

The fruits of the mission are expected to inform how NASA can protect astronauts from the radiation whizzing around the cosmos, which can cause DNA damage and changes in gene expression.

Scientists are also expected to 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, 6.1 million kilometers, and find out how the sun churns space weather in our solar system.

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