NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are planning to launch the ‘Solar Orbiter’, a new spacecraft that will travel to the Sun to capture the first pictures of its north and south poles. The spacecraft will use the gravity of Venus and Earth to swing itself out of the ecliptic plane — the swath of space, roughly aligned with the Sun’s equator, where all planets orbit.
The spacecraft will launch from Cape Canaveral on February 7, 2020, at 11:15 pm EST which converts to 9:45 am IST on February 8, 2020. Once the spacecraft is out of the ecliptic plane, it will proceed to snap the first-ever look at the Sun’s poles with its bird’s eye view, NASA said.
“Up until Solar Orbiter, all solar imaging instruments have been within the ecliptic plane or very close to it,” said Russell Howard, space scientist at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, DC and principal investigator for one of Solar Orbiter’s ten instruments. “Now, we’ll be able to look down on the Sun from above.”
The Sun plays a central role in shaping space around us as we know it and its massive magnetic field stretches far beyond Pluto, paving a superhighway for charged solar particles known as the solar wind. “When bursts of solar wind hit Earth, they can spark space weather storms that interfere with our GPS and communications satellites — at their worst, they can even threaten astronauts,” NASA said.
The scientists monitor the Sun’s magnetic field in order to prepare for arriving solar storms but we only get a sidelong glimpse of the Sun’s poles from within the ecliptic plane, which leaves major gaps in the data.
“The poles are particularly important for us to be able to model more accurately,” said Holly Gilbert, NASA project scientist for the mission at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “For forecasting space weather events, we need a pretty accurate model of the global magnetic field of the Sun.”
The only prior spacecraft to fly over the Sun’s poles was also a joint ESA/NASA venture launched in 1990. The Ulysses spacecraft made three passes around the Sun before being decommissioned in 2009. However, while Ulysses never got closer than Earth-distance to the Sun, the Solar Orbiter will pass inside the orbit of Mercury 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).
After years of technology development, it will be the closest any Sun-facing cameras have ever gotten to the Sun. “You can’t really get much closer than Solar Orbiter is going and still look at the Sun,” Müller said.
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