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NASA and ESA heat things up with new Solar Orbiter probe

By Jeff Spry
ESA Solar Orbiter

We all can use a little heat right now as we descend into the depths of winter, so we should take comfort in the fact that NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) will keep temperatures rising as its latest solar probe prepares to unlock the atomic mysteries of the sun when it launches in February.

With the Parker Solar Probe dipping down into our star's turbulent corona on its current mission — after shattering records for the closest, fastest man-made object to encounter the sun when it made its first two perihelion passes in November 2018 and April 2019 — it's time for a newcomer named Solar Orbiter to taste the cosmic fires. 


Currently blocked in for a Feb. 5 blastoff atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, this joint venture headed up by the ESA will target similar, but essentially different, mission parameters than the Parker Probe's intimate and up-close inquiry into our star's violent solar winds and corona temperatures. 

Instead, Solar Orbiter will glance unflinchingly into the sublime inferno with all eyes open from a vantage point much further out (26 million miles at its closest approach), allowing the craft to take a good, long look at the sun's polar regions. Specifically, this 3,970-pound spacecraft is equipped with 10 different science instruments, which it will employ to scrutinize how the sun creates and controls its heliosphere, that enveloping bubble of highly charged particles blasted by the solar winds far out into the interstellar medium.

"We've never been able to image the poles of the sun," NASA deputy project scientist Holly Gilbert explained at December's annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco. "That is extremely important for helioseismology, but also for looking at the global magnetic field of the sun. In order to model space weather activity and activity in general on the sun, we need that full global picture of the magnetic field."

NASA and the ESA see the Parker Solar Probe and Solar Orbiter as complementary missions, both lasting seven years and letting astronomers and researchers investigate the same solar plasma at two completely different spacial points, ultimately resulting in a more complete scientific grasp of the solar magnetic field. Solar Orbiter makes its first close perihelion pass in 2022.

"And the fact that [Solar] Orbiter can also measure composition will allow us to determine where on the sun the events happened that created the solar wind that we will be seeing," Marco Velli, PSP observatory scientist, added during the AGU conference.

"So, we're really facing a decade, I think, with these two missions — and, of course, the new ground-based instrumentation, the high-resolution solar telescopes that are about to be operated by the NSF [the U.S. National Science Foundation] and, a little bit further in time, in Europe — that we will really unravel solar magnetism in itself."