Solar Orbiter Was Launched and Will Soon Start Sending Data to Earth

​Solar Orbiter, a joint mission between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) has successfully been launched on Sunday, February 9th. Its purpose is to observe the Sun at close proximity.

After taking off at 11.03 p.m. EST (04:03 GMT, February 10th) from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the probe is currently on its trajectory to inner Solar System. Following the liftoff, the spacecraft divided from the rocket’s upper stage spread its solar arrays and confirmed to the engineers on Earth that it had power.

The First Probe to Observe the Sun at Close Distance

It will take about two years for the satellite to get to the operational orbit around the Sun, where it will spot unique views of the star’s poles. Throughout the next few days, the spacecraft will be stationing its communication antennas and its instruments. Solar Orbiter is on an unprecedented mission that will enable its multiple instruments to capture the first images of the Sun’s poles.

Solar Orbiter ​will remain in a commissioning stage in its first three months in space, while space engineers on the ground will test its tools to ensure that everything is functioning. Two years from now, the satellite will be at close proximity to the Sun to be able to take a few accurate measurements.

Fabio Favatta, ESA’s chief of Science Program Communication, said that the instruments on the craft would be the first to be turned on.

“As soon as the boom is extended, the first instruments like the magnetometer are switched on,” he said.

These tools also contain solar wind analyzers and energetic particle detectors. The instrument boom is set to take place 36 hours after the launch, or on February 11th around 11 a.m. EST (16:00 GMT).

Solar Orbiter ​will perform 22 close approaches to the Sun in the next decade, and carry out numerous gravity-assist flybys of Venus in order to have a better view at the Sun’s poles. ​

“The first big science objectives will be achieved after the first Venus flybys,” Favatta added. “That’s when we get close to the Sun. We know that the cruise phase will be long, it’s part of the design of the mission.” 

A Complete Picture of the Sun’s Processes

Throughout the mission’s cruise stage, which will take place until November 2021, the satellite will complete three planetary flybys to help propel itself closer to the Sun. Two will be carried past Venus in December 2020 and August 2021, and one past Earth in November 2021.

As soon as Solar Orbiter​ carries out its planned Earth flyby, it will be able to begin the first stage of its expedition. Throughout five years, the satellite will slowly fly closer to the Sun, performing an extended, looping orbit; its first pass of the star is set for June 2020. The spacecraft will carry out a few more Venus flybys during its mission to slowly increase the inclination of its orbit until it is able to observe the Sun’s poles.

Even though the first significant pieces of science data are not expected to return for a while, Nicky Fox, director of heliophysics ​for NASA, said that they could start to get information starting with May.

Solar Orbiter is geared with similar tools other craft that analyzes the Sun, Parker Solar Probe, has. According to Fox, both satellites will be able to collaborate in order to offer researchers a complete picture of the Sun.

“We waited 60 years to get a spacecraft in the inner heliosphere, and now within 18 months, we have two of them up there,” Fox said. “It’s a great time for heliophysics.”

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