A new spacecraft is launching toward the sun on Sunday. It will take the first photos of the sun's poles and probe its violent eruptions.


Solar Orbiter launch fairing separation

  • NASA is launching a European spacecraft called the Solar Orbiter toward the sun on Sunday.
  • The Solar Orbiter is expected to capture the first images of the sun’s poles — and of the largest holes in its atmosphere.
  • The spacecraft will also take unprecedented measurements of the mysterious forces that create space weather, which can threaten power grids and communications on Earth.
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NASA is launching a new spacecraft towards the sun on Sunday, and it’s expected to send back the first photos of our star’s poles.

The Solar Orbiter, built by the European Space Agency (ESA) with help from NASA, will travel millions of miles to reach the sun and take unprecedented measurements of its most mysterious forces. The data it returns will reveal the origins of space weather and even track eruptions on the sun in near-real time.

It joins two other unprecedented tools for studying the sun: a record-breaking NASA spacecraft called Parker Solar Probe and an in-progress telescope on Earth that recently captured the most detailed photos ever taken of the sun’s surface.

With the addition of the Solar Orbiter, this suite of new observatories could help scientists better protect Earth’s satellites, power grids, and global communications from the violent surges of electrically charged particles the sun spews out.

“It’s kind of a golden age for solar physics right now,” Anne Pacros, an engineer managing the mission, said in a press briefing on January 27.

Here’s everything you need to know about the ambitious new spacecraft.

SEE ALSO: A record-breaking NASA probe circling the sun has found never-before-seen spikes of solar wind and a flipping magnetic field

DON’T MISS: The most detailed photos and videos of the sun’s surface ever captured reveal Texas-sized cells of boiling plasma

The ESA is set to launch the Solar Orbiter toward the sun on February 9.

It will fly as close as 26 million miles (42 million kilometers) to the sun.

The 460-pound probe will take unprecedented measurements of the mysterious solar forces that radiate throughout the solar system and create space weather.

“There are dozens if not hundreds of science topics where we hope to make progress,” Chris St. Cyr, a scientist who has worked on the spacecraft, said in the January briefing.

The spacecraft’s orbit will take it closer to the sun’s poles than any previous probe, and it’s expected to send photos back to Earth.

“Several years from now, you will see the first images of the sun’s pole and the magnetic field,” St. Cyr said.

The Solar Orbiter will be able to keep pace with the sun’s rotation. That means it can hover over specific spots for long periods of time.

“It will allow us to look at the source regions on the sun where things are happening,” Holly Gilbert, NASA’s director of heliophysics, said at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in December.

One of the spacecraft’s primary goals is to study solar wind: a stream of electrically charged particles that surges from the sun and washes over the planets.

The entire solar system sits within the outer reaches of our star’s atmosphere. That means Earth is constantly awash in magnetic, electrically charged particles from the sun that scientists don’t fully understand.

Events on the sun send out floods of the ions and electrons that make up solar wind. These charged particles travel almost at the speed of light and can interfere with human technology.

The Solar Orbiter will capture data from eruptions on the sun’s surface, which can send billions of tons of material hurtling towards Earth and knock out power grids or pipelines.

The electric currents from solar storms can travel down Earth’s pipelines and power lines, overpowering technologies that humans rely on. A solar storm in 1989 knocked out Quebec’s power for about nine hours.

This can be especially dangerous for astronauts traveling far from Earth. 

Two such solar storms cut off emergency radio communications for a total of 11 hours following Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Dangerous solar storms are nearly impossible to foresee. The charged particles can reach Earth in under half an hour. That’s why emergency services following Irma were unprepared for the disruption.

Studying the source of solar wind could help scientists figure out how to protect astronauts and Earth’s electric grid from these unpredictable, violent electrical storms.

This magnetic wind also creates beautiful aurorae as it interacts with Earth’s atmosphere.

Most solar storms aren’t strong enough to cause mass damage on Earth.

The Solar Orbiter will look for the source of the solar wind and measure explosive events as they happen.

“What we want to do with Solar Orbiter is to understand how our star creates and controls the constantly changing space environment throughout the solar system,” Yannis Zouganelis, an ESA scientist working on the mission, said in the briefing. 

“There are still basic mysteries about our star that remain unsolved,” he added.

The ESA has shipped the Solar Orbiter to the US, where NASA enclosed it in a fairing that will sit on top of an Atlas V rocket.

NASA also installed one of the spacecraft’s scientific instruments, which will help measure eruptions on the sun and disturbances in the solar wind.

The rocket is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sunday during a two-hour window starting at 11:03 p.m. ET.

It was originally scheduled to launch on Wednesday, but the ESA announced a two-day delay due to a minor rocket problem, then NASA pushed the launch back another two days due to a schedule conflict and poor weather.

The ESA has a 20-day window to launch the spacecraft. 

The rocket fairing will fall away once the spacecraft leaves Earth’s orbit.

From there, it will journey as far as 186 million miles from Earth.

The spacecraft will pass Venus on its way to the sun in order to get a boost in speed from the planet’s gravity.

Solar panels will power the Solar Orbiter, giving it an 18-meter (59-foot) wingspan.

Venus’s gravity will also help lift the Solar Orbiter out of the plane of our solar system.

From there, the spacecraft’s orbit will take it around the sun at an angle of 24 degrees above the sun’s equator. It will orbit the sun once every 168 days.

In this orbit, the spacecraft can investigate the sun’s largest coronal holes: darker, cooler, constantly moving regions in the sun’s plasma.

In preparation for a recent solar eclipse, Pacros said, she and some other researchers made a 3D-printed model of the sun’s corona and its magnetic field. They were shocked at their preview of what the Solar Orbiter might see.

“When you actually rotate around and look at the top of the poles, it looks completely different to what you see at the equator. None of us really quite believed it,” she said.

“These coronal holes are enormous at the top of the poles. And we just see the sort of edges of them, or the bits that are kind of creeping down onto the main disk,” Pacros said.

“There will be a big dark spot on top of the sun,” she added. “How it actually grows and shrinks with solar activity is something we’ve never been able to see before.”

Scientists think these coronal holes produce solar wind. NASA’s Parker Solar Probe — which rocketed around the sun three times, getting closer than any spacecraft before it — has observed some of that solar wind streaming out of them.

The Solar Orbiter will also work with the Parker Solar Probe to study eruptions on the sun.

“There’s a great synergy between these two missions, and we’re very excited about it,” Gilbert said.

Because the two spacecraft will be at different points in their orbits around the sun when they measure eruptions together, they should gather data on a given event from points that are both close to the sun and far away from it.

That will give scientists a clearer picture of how explosions of plasma and electric energy evolve as the particles travel away from the sun.

“When a bursty event happens, we can trace it all the way from the sun to the Earth, basically live,” Marco Velli, a physicist who helped plan the Orbiter mission, said at the AGU meeting in December.

“Seeing them from multiple points of view at the same time will give us a lot more information,” Velli added.

The Solar Orbiter mission will last at least seven years, though likely longer, Gilbert said: “Almost always it goes into extended mission and then beyond sometimes.”

An extended mission would add another three years to the Solar Orbiter’s life. If that happens, the spacecraft could get even closer to the poles, at a 33-degree angle to the sun’s equator.

The ESA will broadcast the Solar Orbiter’s launch live on Sunday.

Watch the launch here.