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Solar Orbiter Mission

Topics Covered: Awareness in space.

Solar Orbiter Mission

What to study?

For Prelims and Mains: Objectives, features and significance of the mission.

Context: Solar Orbiter mission was launched recently.

  • The mission is a collaboration between ESA (the European Space Agency) and NASA.
  • The spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.

About Solar Orbiter:

Solar Orbiter is a mission dedicated to solar and heliospheric physics.

It was selected as the first medium-class mission of ESA’s Cosmic Vision 2015-2025 Programme.

This is the first mission that will provide images of the sun’s north and south poles using a suite of six instruments on board that will capture the spacecraft’s view. It is a seven-year mission and will come within 26 million miles of the sun. It will be able to brave the heat of the sun because it has a custom titanium heat shield coated in calcium phosphate so that it can endure temperatures up to 970 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Objectives:

  • Solar Orbiter will be used to examine how the Sun creates and controls the heliosphere, the vast bubble of charged particles blown by the solar wind into the interstellar medium.
  • The spacecraft will combine in situ and remote sensing observations to gain new information about the solar wind, the heliospheric magnetic field, solar energetic particles, transient interplanetary disturbances and the Sun’s magnetic field.

Solar Orbiter will set about answering four top-level science questions:

  1. What drives the solar wind and where does the coronal magnetic field originate from?
  2. How do solar transients drive heliospheric variability?
  3. How do solar eruptions produce energetic particle radiation that fills the heliosphere?
  4. How does the solar dynamo work and drive connections between the Sun and the heliosphere?

Significance:

Understanding the sun’s magnetic field and solar wind are key because they contribute to space weather, which impacts Earth by interfering with networked systems like GPS, communications and even astronauts on the International Space Station. The sun’s magnetic field is so massive that it stretches beyond Pluto, providing a pathway for solar wind to travel directly across the solar system.

Journey ahead:

It will take Solar Orbiter about two years to reach its highly elliptical orbit around the sun. Gravity assists from Earth and Venus will help swing the spacecraft out of the ecliptic plane, or the space that aligns with the sun’s equator, so it can study the sun’s poles from above and below. The mission will work in tandem with NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which is currently orbiting the sun on a seven-year mission and just completed its fourth close approach of the star.

Background:

Solar Orbiter follows the Ulysses spacecraft, another collaboration between ESA and NASA that launched in 1990 and also flew over the sun’s poles. Ulysses completed three passes of the sun before its mission ended in 2009, but its view was limited to what it could see from the sun’s equator.

Sources: the Hindu.