In Depth

Solar Orbiter: a look ahead at ‘golden decade’ for physics

European Space Agency mission to study Sun’s polar regions launches in Florida

The European Space Agency’s ground-breaking Solar Orbiter probe has been launched as part of a landmark mission to study the polar regions of the Sun.

The craft, which cost €1.5bn (£1.3bn), launched aboard an Atlas rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida shortly after 11pm local time on Sunday (4am GMT on Monday).

The BBC reports that the probe is “packed with cameras and sensors that should reveal remarkable new insights on the workings of our star”, with researchers aiming to “better understand what drives its dynamic behaviour”.

What is the Solar Orbiter?

The Solar Orbiter is the focus of the flagship mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) in partnership with its US counterpart Nasa. The Independent describes the craft as a “boxy 4,000-pound (1,800-kilogram) spacecraft with spindly instrument booms and antennas.

It will be heading towards the Sun but will first carry out a number of slingshot manoeuvres around Venus and Earth in order to lock it into a stable orbit around the star. Full observation operations will begin in late 2021, with the first close solar encounter in 2022 and more every six months, the paper adds.

At its closest point, the Solar Orbiter will come within 26 million miles of the Sun, well within the orbit of Mercury. In order to survive the extreme heat, the probe will have to work from behind a large titanium shield.

Dr Michelle Sprake, a systems engineer with European aerospace manufacturer Airbus, told the BBC that “one of the coatings that makes sure the spacecraft doesn’t get too hot is actually made out of baked animal bones”.

What is it looking for?

The Sun’s polar regions have never been fully studied, but scientists describe them as “pockmarked with dark, constantly shifting coronal holes”, Time magazine says.

These regions are understood to be hubs for the Sun’s magnetic field, and are thought to flip polarity every 11 years.

ITV News reports that observing magnetic activity building up in the atmosphere of the Sun – a process that can lead to powerful flares and eruptions – will provide “new insights into the giant storms raging on its surface.

“Predicting when these storms occur could help governments and companies protect these satellites and other communications infrastructure as they can trip the electronics on satellites, interfere with radio communications and even knock over power grids,” the broadcaster adds.

After a successful launch on Sunday, Daniel Mueller, an ESA scientist who worked on the mission, said: “This was picture perfect. And suddenly you really felt you are connected to the rest of the solar system,” the Mirror reports.

Dr Chris Lee, the UK Space Agency’s chief scientist, said that “understanding how our Sun works is a UK science strength, with teams investigating how solar storms build and grow”, calling it “the most significant UK investment in a space science mission for a generation”, while Nicola Fox, director of Nasa’s heliophysics division, considers it “a golden age” for solar physics.

What is happening over the next decade?

The BBC agrees with Fox, claiming that the coming decade is “expected to be a golden one for advances in solar physics”.

For a start, the probe’s launch comes shortly after the launch of Nasa’s Parker craft, which the broadcaster notes “shares many of the same scientific goals and even some of the same kinds of instruments”.

Furthermore, a new four-metre telescope has just recently opened in Hawaii – called the Daniel K Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) – and it is able to observe details on the Sun’s surface that are as small as 30km across.

Just last month, the telescope revealed cell-like convecting masses of hot gas and plasma on the body’s surface, each one being roughly the size of the US state of Texas, the BBC reports.

The Solar Orbiter will be able to see objects of only around 70km in diameter, but will “sense a much broader swathe of wavelengths than DKIST and sample more levels through the Sun’s atmosphere”, the BBC adds.

Professor Louise Harra, from the Physical Meteorological Observatory in Davos, Switzerland, told the broadcaster: “We have joint observing plans already made between DKIST and Solar Orbiter which will be amazing.”

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