The US-European Solar Orbiter probe on Sunday night launched from Florida on a voyage to deepen our understanding of the sun and how it shapes the space weather that affects technology on Earth.
The mission, a collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 11:03pm and could last up to nine years or more.
At 12:24am yesterday the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, received a signal from the spacecraft indicating that its solar panels had successfully deployed.
Space Orbiter is expected to provide unprecedented insights into the sun’s atmosphere, winds and magnetic fields, including how it shapes the heliosphere, the vast swath of space that encompasses the solar system.
By journeying out of the ecliptic plane — the belt of space roughly aligned with the sun’s equator, through which the planets orbit — it is to acquire the first-ever images of our star’s uncharted polar regions.
Drawing on gravity assists from Earth and Venus, Solar Orbiter is to slingshot itself into a bird’s eye view of the sun’s poles, reaching its primary science orbit in two years’ time.
“I think it was picture perfect, suddenly you really feel like you’re connected to the entire solar system,” ESA project scientist Daniel Muller said shortly after the launch. “You’re here on Earth and you’re launching something that will go close to the sun.”
“We have one common goal and that is to get the good science out of this mission. I think we’re going to succeed,” added Holly Gilbert, director of NASA’s heliophysics science division.
Ten state-of-the-art instruments on board are to record myriad observations to help scientists unlock clues about what drives solar winds and flares.
These emit billions of highly charged particles that impact the Earth, producing the spectacular northern lights.
However, they can also disrupt radar systems, radio networks and even, though rarely, render satellites useless.
The largest solar storm on record hit North America in September 1859, knocking out much of the continent’s telegraph network and bathing the skies in an aurora viewable as far away as the Caribbean.
“Imagine if just half of our satellites were destroyed,” said Matthieu Berthomier, a researcher at the Paris-based Plasma Physics Laboratory. “It would be a disaster for mankind.”
At its closest approach, Solar Orbiter is to be nearer to the sun than Mercury, a mere 42 million kilometers away.
With a custom-designed titanium heat shield, it is built to withstand temperatures as high as 500°C.
Its heat-resistant structure is coated in a thin, black layer of calcium phosphate, a charcoal-like powder that is similar to pigments used in prehistoric cave paintings.
The shield will protect the instruments from extreme particle radiation emitted from solar explosions.
All but one of the spacecraft’s telescopes will peep out through holes in the heat shield that open and close in a carefully orchestrated dance, while other instruments will work behind the shadow of the shield.
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