This weekend is the scheduled launch of the joint NASA/European Space Agency Solar Orbiter project to take a look at the sun and in particular, the sun's magnetic poles.
The mission, which is a joint collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency, is currently expected to launch shortly after 11 p.m. ET Sunday. 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. Having a visual understanding of the sun's poles is important because it can provide more insight about the sun's powerful magnetic field and how it affects Earth.
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.
This 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.
"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, D.C. and principal investigator for one of Solar Orbiter's ten instruments. "Now, we'll be able to look down on the sun from above."
"It will be terra incognita," said Daniel Müller, ESA project scientist for the mission at the Agency's European Space Research and Technology Centre in the Netherlands. "This is really exploratory science."
Solar Orbiter is equipped with ten instruments that can capture observations of the sun's corona (which is its atmosphere), the poles and the solar disk. It can also use its variety of instruments to measure the sun's magnetic fields and solar wind, or the energized stream of particles emitted by the sun that reach across our solar system.
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.
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. It launched in August 2018 and will eventually come within four million miles of the sun -- the closest a spacecraft has ever flown by our star.
Here's hoping the project has a safe launch and a fruitful mission. Lord knows we need all the additional science knowledge we can get right about now.