In the late hours of Sunday (US time), the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter officially lifted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. It is now on its way to the Sun, which it will study like no other spacecraft or telescope has before.
Solar Orbiter is now on a 20-month journey to its operational orbit, which will take it as close as 42 million kilometers (26 million miles) from our star. But it's not its closeness that will provide us with new views of the Sun, it's how its orbit will change over the course of the mission.
The spacecraft will regularly come close to the planet Venus, and the team will use these encounters to give Solar Orbiter a “kick.” As time goes by, the orbit of the spacecraft will become more and more inclined with respect to the plane of the Solar System, and this will allow the first observation ever of the Sun's poles.
But this is just one piece of incredible science that we can expect from Solar Orbiter. Its suite of instruments will be used to better understand the solar wind, the stream of electrically charged particles coming from the Sun. It will also study the many magnetic mysteries of our star, uncovering how the Sun changes, and how it affects the space around it.
“As humans, we have always been familiar with the importance of the Sun to life on Earth, observing it and investigating how it works in detail, but we have also long known it has the potential to disrupt everyday life should we be in the firing line of a powerful solar storm,” Günther Hasinger, ESA director of science, said in a statement. “By the end of our Solar Orbiter mission, we will know more about the hidden force responsible for the Sun’s changing behaviour and its influence on our home planet than ever before.”
The mission has a nominal duration of seven years, and the team hopes it will be extended for three more. The mission will involve collaboration with NASA, with particularly strong links to the Parker Solar Probe, the American space agency’s flagship mission around our Sun.