NASA, Europe space agency launch Solar Orbiter mission

The Solar Orbiter spacecraft built for NASA and the European Space Agency lifts off from pad 41 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket as the full moon is seen above at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral

The Solar Orbiter spacecraft built for NASA and the European Space Agency lifts off from pad 41 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket as the full moon is seen above at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral

"Solar Orbiter is all about the connection between what happens on the Sun and what happens in space", explained Prof Tim Horbury from Imperial College London.

Atlas V rocket lifted the 1,800-kilogram (3,790-lb) Solar Orbiter off of the pad at Space Launch Complex 41, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Sunday (Feb. 9), at 11:03 p.m. EST.

When United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket takes off later today, the European Space Agency's (ESA) Solar Orbiter will be snuggled inside to help us study our star up close and personal. NASA is a partner on the mission, supplying one instrument, called the Heliospheric Imager, as well as components for other instruments and the launch itself.

This artist depiction of the spacecraft facing the Sun lists the 10 science instruments Solar Orbiter is carrying on its mission.

Solar scientists also want to be capable of predicting space weather in a similar manner meteorologists do on Earth.

The Solar Orbiter will have to cross paths with Venus after Christmas day, and this will result in Venus sucking the Solar Orbiter out of its natural rotation. Every one these tools needed to be tempered to withstand not just those exceptionally significant temperatures in the Orbiter's closest approach to the Sun, but down to nearly -300 degrees Fahrenheit, which can be an wonderful engineering challenge when you are managing instrumentation made to detect very nice detail. "Go Solar Orbiter!" said Cesar Garcia Marirrodriga, project manager of the European Space Agency. It will face intense solar radiation that is 13 times more powerful than that in Earth's orbit.

Solar Orbiter won't be able to unlock those mysteries immediately.

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Equipped with a camera, the orbiter's special orbit - which occasionally takes it closer to the Sun than Mercury ever gets - will enable the spacecraft to snap the first ever photos of the Sun's poles.

Solar Orbiter's mission sees it orbiting the Sun for at least seven years, gathering data about what's going on in the star's heliosphere, which is roughly equivalent to Earth's atmosphere in that it surrounds the Sun. "We're just embedded in the Sun's magnetic field", said NRL astrophysicist Robin Colaninno. The full mission will formally start in November 2021.

"It was a really emotional moment: I have been working on this mission for 12 years".

Out of here, Solar Obiter embarks on a journey which will take just over a year and a half an hour, and also comprise two near moves to Venus and Earth so as to make the most of the gravitational pull to propel the spacecraft towards its destination whilst preserving as much fuel as you can. The two spacecraft will be able to provide complementary sets of observations.

"Every instrument plays a different tune, but together they play the symphony of the sun", Hasinger said.

Solar Orbiter's suite of 10 scientific instruments will trace how energy emanates from the sun, guided by the star's intense magnetic fields.

The unique thing about the Solar Orbiter is that it will observe the Sun's poles, rather than the equator that we usually see. The National Science Foundation released January 29 first images of the sun taken by that observatory, the largest in the world devoted to observing the sun, showing it's capable of producing the highest-resolution images of the sun's photosphere, seeing features as small as 30 kilometers across.

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