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Solar Orbiter Launch
For the last year, Parker Solar Probe has broken records in speed, collected unprecedented data and achieved the closest approaches to the sun ever. But none of these insights was detailed images of the Sun directly, I mean, if we’re heading to the only star in our Planetary System, we want to see it, up close and personal.

So, The European Space Agency and ESA have another mission: Solar Orbiter!

Solar Orbiter Mission

“Solar Orbiter really will have the first-ever images from the Sun's poles. So, we have not, as mankind, not taken any images of the solar polar regions ever. We don't really know what it looks like, but we believe that the poles are what we need to observe to better understand the Magnetic cycle of the Sun. We're going to the sun because it really has a lot of secrets that we have not really solved yet” - Daniel Muller (Project Scientist, ESA)

So, the Solar Orbiter is an International collaboration to support our growing knowledge about the Sun. It will be imaging and gathering data about the Sun’s surface, Magnetic field, Solar winds, and specifically, it’s Polar regions.

Now, Scientists have flown a number of Solar and Heliospheric missions in the past, but nothing like the Parker Solar Probe and the Solar Orbiter, each working hand-in-hand to paint a more comprehensive picture of what’s happening on the Sun.

“The Solar Orbiter and Parker Solar Probe have a great amount of Synergy. So, Parker Solar Probe reach temperatures of over 1400 degrees centigrade, which is too hot to mount cameras. And, Solar Orbiter will experience temperatures of just over 500 degrees centigrade and that is just the range where we can still fly cameras to look at the Sun. So, Solar Orbiter will look at the sun itself and measure the solar wind, flying past our spacecraft, and Solar Probe will measure the solar wind at a different location even closer to the Sun” - Daniel Muller
Solar Winds
And understanding Solar wind is crucial since it can be destructive to us on Earth. The Sun resides nearly a Hundred and fifty million kilometres (149.6 Million Km) away from our planet, but we can still feel its presence in the obvious light and heat it gives off. But beyond that, the sun’s surface also creates sudden events known as Transients; these include Flares, Coronal mass ejections, and Shock waves. The explosive phenomena add to space weather which affects the behaviour of charged particles known as Solar wind, reaching Earth. This can disrupt Radio and GPS communications, and even in extreme cases, lead to power outages.

Every day we become more reliant on technology to navigate our lives, so unfurling the turbulent nature of the sun is more vital than ever. So, what exactly is on board the Solar Orbiter that will help the team see these coronal events in greater detail?

“Solar Orbiter has a comprehensive suite of 10 instruments onboard. And as the mission's Project Scientist I love them all equally. They are... they're all great. So, we have four, instruments that measure the Solar wind as it flies past the spacecraft, the so-called, “In-Situ Instruments”, and six remote sensing instruments that measure photons, meaning, taking images of the sun and the surrounding corona and Heliosphere” - Daniel Muller
Solar Orbiter
Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
The remote sensing equipment includes three different varieties of imagers (Ultraviolet, Visible light and Heliospheric) as well as a Spectral imager, Coronagraph and an X-ray Spectrometer/Telescope. Each of these instruments specialize in viewing what the sun looks like in either Visible wavelengths, like what you and I can see with the naked eye, or in wavelengths we can’t see like ultraviolet waves coming off of Plasma or other X-ray Emissions.

The In-Situ instruments, on the other hand, include a Magnetometer, an Energetic Particle Detector, a Radio and Plasma waves sensor, and a Solar Wind Plasma Analyzer. Most of which can be found on the boom in the shadow of the heat shield due to their sensitivity to electromagnetic signatures of the spacecraft itself.

Solar Orbiter Body Material

So, now that we’ve gone over all the delicate equipment onboard, you might be wondering what a spacecraft heading straight to the sun does to protect its precious cargo, especially when Mercury, the closest planet to the sun, has its surface scorched to 430 degrees Celsius during the day.

Solar Orbiter’s secret? Equipment sheltered behind a powerful multi-layered heat shield containing Titanium, Aluminum, and a material called Solar-Black.

“It has a massive heat shield that is actually larger than the spacecraft itself. It's about three by two and a half meters and it protects us from a huge amount of heat that we're getting from the Sun” - Daniel Muller

In the front, the heat shield is coated with Solar-Black, a material made from Calcium Phosphate that can tolerate Ultraviolet radiation and Energetic particles without degrading. Behind that is a thin 0.05-millimetre surface layer of Titanium foil-backed up with 18 layers of Titanium insulation. The structure also includes an Aluminum Honeycomb Support panel, Carbon fibre skins, more insulation and gaps between it all to redirect heat to the sides. In total, the sides of the spacecraft will approximately experience temperatures of less than 50 degrees Celsius, which is nothing more than a really hot summer day.

Solar Orbiter Launch

With everything in place, this mission is Already launched on Sunday (Feb. 9) at 11:03 p.m. EST (0403 GMT on Feb. 10) 2020 aboard the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral. If for the next decade, everything goes to plan, we will know more than ever about the star our lives all depend on.

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