The Solar Orbiter spacecraft was launched tonight to begin a seven-year, $1.5 billion mission aimed at studying the sun and its mysterious magnetic field from an unprecedented vantage point.
- A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket launched the two-ton, bus-sized probe from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 11:03 p.m. ET (8:03 p.m. PT) after a smooth countdown. Over the months ahead, Solar Orbiter will take advantage of gravitational slingshot maneuvers around Earth and Venus to make its first close solar pass in 2022.
- NASA and the European Space Agency are collaborating on the project, which will capture images of the sun and measure its magnetic field from an orbit that will take it as close as 26 million miles from the sun’s surface, climbing as high as 24 degrees above the sun’s ecliptic plane. Solar Orbiter will be the first spacecraft to get such a good view of the sun’s poles.
- Solar Orbiter’s suite of 10 scientific instruments will trace how energy emanates from the sun, guided by the star’s intense magnetic fields. The coming years should be prime time for such a study, climaxing with a peak of solar activity in the 2023-2026 time frame. To beat the heat, the probe is equipped with a heavy-duty heat shield capable of weathering temperatures as high as 970 degrees Fahrenheit.