The European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA are celebrating the successful launch of Solar Orbiter. The solar probe blasted off from Kennedy Space Center on Sunday, February 9, at 11:03pm. An Atlas V rocket propelled it toward the inner solar system. The spacecraft, which is the size of a small truck, will slingshot around planets into position for a bird’s eye view of the Sun. Solar Orbiter will eventually provide unrivaled insights into the Sun’s atmosphere, its winds, and its magnetic fields.
The Solar Orbiter will take first-ever images of the Sun’s polar regions. But don’t expect those images any time soon. The craft won’t reach its operational position for approximately two years. Paulo Ferri, head of ESA’s Mission Operation explains, “The Solar Orbiter will need the help not only of the rocket that will put it into space but also the help of the planets, in particular Venus and Earth, to reach the final destination.” Gravity assists from both planets will provide the slingshot effect to hurl the probe into position.
Solar Orbit’s observations will be worth the wait. Its sun-shielded, remote-sensing instruments will measure the Sun’s activity and monitor conditions around the spacecraft. Every six months, the probe will be closer to the Sun than to Mercury. The first time that happens should be in November 2021.
Every 11 years, the Sun’s poles flip. North becomes South and vice versa. Before that happens, solar activity increases and powerful bursts of surface material is thrust into space. Billions of these highly charged particles impact Earth. They produce the auroras (the Northern and Southern Lights) and wreak havoc on radio systems, networks, and satellites. Solar Orbiter can help us understand these phenomena. “We have one common goal and that is to get the good science out of this mission. I think we’re going to succeed,” says Holly Gilbert, director of NASA’s heliophysics science division.
The Sun displays God’s unparalleled creativity. Job 22:12 says, “Is not God high in the heavens? See the highest stars, how lofty they are!” Right now, Solar Orbiter is the hottest mission in space, quite literally.
(An artist depicts Solar Orbiter nearing the Sun. ESA, NASA)