NASA, ESA Launch Solar Orbiter To Unravel Mysteries Of Sun

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Exploring the Sun has been one of the most ambitious and daring missions of mankind. Together, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have joined forces to develop the Solar Orbiter with one mission: to better understand the Sun. The Orbiter has successfully taken off from Cape Canaveral on board a United Launch Alliance spacecraft.

NASA ESA Solar Orbiter
 

The mission was initially proposed nearly two decades ago, in 1999. However, due to various technical difficulties and a couple of reshuffling delayed the initial launch from 2008-2013 to 2020. The joint mission is expected to send back unprecedented data and images, including the first images of the solar polar regions.

Protective Gear For Solar Orbiter

Although there's been a huge delay, it's benefited the solar orbiter in many ways. For one, the technological developments have enabled the team to better protect the spaceship and also the ultra-sensitive instruments. It is now packed a heat shield that weighs 150kg and is said to withstand temperatures up to 520 degrees Celsius.

To better understand it, the heat shield resembles a sandwich, made up of titanium foil, which is coated in a special material called SolarBlack, specially created for the Solar Orbiter. The SolarBlack is made up of calcium phosphate, like our bones.

Solar Orbiter Studies Sun
 

This coating covers the large surface area of the spacecraft. It comes with stable thermal properties, is electrically conductive, and will not slough off throughout the mission. Being white in color, it reflects the Sun's rays extremely well. At the same time, its disadvantage is that it will darken over time with ultraviolet radiation, which could adversely affect the internal instruments.

Solar Orbiter: Mission Ambition

ESA is leading the Solar Orbiter mission, while NASA is paying for the launch vehicles and one of the instruments onboard. With all the protective gear in place, the Orbiter is designed to study the hot star up close. The Solar Orbiter is set to answer questions like how the Sun creates and controls the heliosphere (the large bubble that surrounds the solar system).

Solar Rays

The Solar Orbiter team of scientists believes that the key to this question lies in the Sun's polar regions. "We believe this area holds the keys to unraveling the mysteries of the sun's activity cycle," Daniel Müller, ESA's Solar Orbiter project scientist, told Space.com. It will be the first spacecraft to reach the region and send back data.

However, the Solar Orbiter's steepest viewpoint 33 degrees above the ecliptic, won't come until 2029. This is the angle that will give us the best images of the polar regions. But by then, the Orbiter would already be into an extended mission. Yet, the Solar Orbiter will beam back unprecedented data about these never-before-seen regions, including a few passes of Venus.

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