NASA launches orbiter towards sun, now many secrets will be revealed

Watch NASA-ESA Solar Orbiter Lifts Off On Its Voyage To The Sun

Count down to launch of Solar Orbiter mission to study Sun's poles

In the meantime, the Earth-bound mission team is busy ensuring the probe's multiple scientific instruments are in working order. "It's a fantastic moment ... it's like, well, we're unstoppable".

The $ 2 billion spacecraft ($ 1.5 billion US) will join NASA's Parker Solar Probe, launched a year and a half ago, to dangerously get close to the sun to reveal its secrets.

Rather than orbiting in a flat plane as the surrounding planets do, the Solar Orbiter will use Venus' gravity to raise its orbit over time and observe the Sun at higher and higher latitudes.

The UK is at the heart of this European Space Agency (ESA) mission with UK industry winning £200 million worth of contracts and the UK Space Agency investing £20 million in the development and build of the instruments.

"Each instrument plays a different tune, but together they play the sun's symphony", Hasinger said. NASA provided one instrument, the Solar Orbiter Heliospheric Imager (SoloHI), and an additional sensor, the Heavy Ion Sensor, which is part of the Solar Wind Analyzer instrument suite. There is a two-hour launch window.

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The mission, which will take the first pictures of the top and bottom of the sun, was launched on an Atlas V rocket.

The first stage was set to burn for about four minutes, while the second stage would carry the satellite for nearly an hour after liftoff until it hit an escape velocity of 27,000 mph. Europe's project scientist Daniel Mueller was thrilled, calling it "picture flawless".

Holly Gilbert is a NASA project scientist for the Solar Orbiter.

After sling-shotting around Venus, it's expected to make its first close solar pass by March 2022. It is scheduled to fly as close as 26 million miles to the Sun and climb about its orbit to capture a glimpse of the solar poles and the far side of the giant yellow star. "Solar Orbiter truly is a "big beast" for our United Kingdom space community".

Currently, NASA and the ESA have several missions already keeping an eye on the Sun or investigating it more closely.

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The sun's poles are pockmarked with dark, constantly shifting coronal holes.

That is extremely important for helioseismology, but also for looking at the global magnetic field of the sun.

"For Solar Orbiter, the key thing is that it is going out of the ecliptic - that plane where the planets all orbit - to give us unprecedented views of the poles", Fox said.

"They measure the sun at the location of the spacecraft itself, providing images of the sun, the corona, the light scattered from the solar winds", Garcia said. It can withstand temperatures up to almost 530 C.

Coated with a heat shield, called SolarBlack, the spacecraft can endure temperatures of more than 500C, hot enough to melt lead. "As NASA moves forward to return to the moon, Mars and beyond with our Artemis program, missions like Solar Orbiter joining our fleet become really critical".

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Predicting when these storms occur could help governments and companies protect these satellites and other communications infrastructure. "That will be the first time we will actually get new and exciting data", he said.

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