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NASA & ESA launch joint Solar Orbiter mission to study Sun’s poles

Aiming to conduct detailed measurements of the Sun’s solar wind, the Solar Orbiter lifted off from Cape Canaveral earlier Monday.

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Bengaluru: The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) Monday launched their collaborative mission to produce new data about the Sun and the first images of its polar regions.

The 1,800kg Solar Orbiter (SolO) lifted off from Cape Canaveral in the US at 0403 GMT (9.33 am IST), the space agencies said in a statement.

SoIO is a satellite to the Sun and will move in an elongated orbit around it, coming close enough to be within Mercury’s orbit.

According to the ESA, it aims to conduct detailed measurements of the Sun’s solar wind, the charged particles that shoot outward from the Sun’s poles and maintain a protective, encompassing bubble of pressure against the external interstellar medium called the heliosphere.

The mission will attempt to answer questions about how and where the solar wind originates, how magnetic activity creates charged particles, and how the Sun maintains the heliosphere as it zips around the Milky Way carrying the planets with it.

The spacecraft will also conduct very close observations of the Sun’s poles for seven years, making a close approach to the Sun every six months. It will study the magnetic activity on the solar surface in an effort to understand magnetic storms on the Sun. Solar activity often can lead to solar flares, which affect space weather and can knock off satellites on earth.

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How the satellite will work

The Solar Orbiter probe is carrying 10 instruments. These include two instruments each from the UK (Solar Wind Plasma Analyser and Magnetometer), and France (Spectral Imaging of the Coronal Environment and Radio and Plasma Wavesalyzer); one each from Spain (Energetic Particle Detector), Belgium (Extreme Ultraviolet Imager), Germany (Polarimetric and Helioseismic Imager), Switzerland (Spectrometer Telescope for Imaging X-rays), Italy (Coronograph), and the US (Solar Orbiter Heliospheric Imager).

To protect itself from the intense heat, the satellite’s heat shield is made up of layers of titanium foil and coated with a special material called SolarBlack, created specifically for this orbiter. SolarBlack is made of calcium phosphate and has stable thermal properties.

SolO will use gravity assists from Earth and Venus, swinging by the planets to gain enough momentum to speed towards the Sun and settle into its designated orbit. The entire journey is expected to take 3.5 years, after which the spacecraft would function for 7 years.

ESA leads the mission while NASA contributed the launch vehicle, the behemoth Atlas V. With its launch delayed multiple times since 2015, the mission cost $1.5 billion.
Preliminary results are expected in May, and full science operations are expected to begin towards the end of next year. Its best views of the Sun will come in 2029. The craft will also study Venus during its close passes.

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