Solar orbiter takes off to capture first look at Sun`s poles

The ESA  NASA Solar Orbiter mission will face the Sun from within the orbit of Mercury at its closest approach. Image credit ESA  ATG Medialab

"We're just embedded in the Sun's magnetic field", said NRL astrophysicist Robin Colaninno. Using gravity assists from Venus and Earth, Solar Orbiter will lift itself out of the ecliptic plane, ultimately reaching an angle of 24 degrees above the Sun's equator. "It's a fantastic moment ... it's like, well, we're unstoppable". Expected to enter orbit around the Sun within two years, the probe will take up a highly elliptical orbit that will enable it to study the Sun in ways that no spacecraft has before. The Parker Solar Probe has been diving into the Sun's atmosphere (the corona) for a closer look and feel, in an attempt to unlock the mysteries surrounding the behaviour of the solar wind and the extreme heat of the corona. Together with powerful ground observatories, the sun-staring space duo will be like an orchestra, according to Gunther Hasinger, the scientific director of the European Space Agency.

"The two together are really ideal", said Guenther Hasinger, ESA's director of science.

Solar Orbiter seeks to resolve the physics of the stream of charged particles from the Sun.

The tasks were divided among the two agencies as the European Space Agency took charge of creating the spacecraft along with its instruments and NASA funded the Atlas 5 rocket, which was used to launch it into space.

Almost 1,000 scientists and engineers from across Europe gathered with their USA colleagues as the rocket blasted off, illuminating the sky for miles as crowds jammed nearby roads and beaches. Crowds also jammed nearby roads and beaches.

The rocket was visible four full minutes after the launch, a brilliant star piercing the night sky.

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NASA declared success one and a half hours later, once the Solar Orbiter's solar wings were unfurled.

In the meantime, the Earth-bound mission team is busy ensuring the probe's multiple scientific instruments are in working order. After it sways through those two bodies to gain momentum, it will end up in an orbit around the Sun with a close distance of only 26 million miles, still about 100 times farther than Earth's Moon, but so close that temperatures at its peak in the spacecraft they will reach nearly 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Parker Solar Probe, on the other hand, has already passed within 18.6 million kilometers of the sun, a record of all time, and photographs for a narrow gap of six million kilometers in 2025. But it's flying nowhere near the poles.

Solar Orbiter was constructed in the United Kingdom by Airbus, lead by an global collaboration of scientist from ESA. The sun is just one of many inter-agency collaborations, including NASA and the European Space Agency.

The sun's poles are pockmarked with dark, constantly shifting coronal holes. It is hoped the unprecedented views of the polar regions will further our understanding of the solar dynamo, a physical process that gives rise to the Sun's magnetic field. "Hopefully, we'll get to see some interesting pictures". "That's where all the fast solar wind comes from".

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