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Explained: What is Solar Orbiter, and how does it differ from previous missions to the Sun?

The Solar Orbiter mission, which will take the first pictures of the top and bottom of the sun, is worth approximately Rs11,700 crore.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: February 11, 2020 8:13:32 am
Solar Orbiter, what is Solar Orbiter, Solar Orbiter mission, SolO, indian express, indian express explained, European Space Agency, NASA Atlas V lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Febraury 9. (Photo: AP)

On Monday (February 10), the Solar Orbiter, a collaborative mission between the European Space Agency and NASA to study the Sun, took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The mission, which will take the first pictures of the top and bottom of the sun, was launched on an Atlas V rocket. It is worth approximately Rs 11,700 crore (1.5 billion EUR).

Explained: What is the Solar Orbiter?

Carrying four in situ instruments (which measure the space environment immediately around the spacecraft like the sense of touch) and six remote-sensing imagers (which see the sun from afar), the Solar Orbiter (called SolO) will face the sun at approximately 42 million kilometres from its surface.

Before SolO, all solar imaging instruments have been within the ecliptic plane, in which all planets orbit and which is aligned with the sun’s equator. The new spacecraft will use the gravity of Venus and Earth to swing itself out of the ecliptic plane, passing inside the orbit of Mercury, and will be able to get a bird’s eye view of the sun’s poles for the first time.

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In 1990, NASA and ESA had sent the Ulysses mission, which also passed over the sun’s poles but at much farther distances, and did not carry a camera.

According to a BBC video, the Orbiter will take pictures using telescopes through a heat shield that is partly made of baked animal bones, to help it withstand temperatures of up to 600 degree Celsius.

By understanding the behaviour of the sun, the Orbiter aims to provide information on how the former would affect technology such as satellites, navigation systems, power grids, and telecommunication services.

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The Orbiter will help scientists understand the sun’s dynamic behaviour, and solve mysteries such as the sunspot cycle, or why the star spews out high velocity charged particles through the solar system. With more data on the global magnetic field of the star, scientists would be able to forecast space weather events.

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