In a huge collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency, the solar research of humanity is about to be taken one step further, with the launch of the Solar Orbiter. As farfetched as a spacecraft orbiting the sun might sound, the mission is well under way, and is set to become a reality in 2017.
NASA will provide several instruments for the project including a Heavy Ion Sensor, used to measure solar winds, and a launch vehicle, an Atlas V411 rocket, which will be used to defeat gravity for long enough to get the Orbiter into space.
Perhaps NASA’s most interesting contribution, is the wide-field heliospheric imager. The technology is an imaging system capable of measuring solar activity, and can detect coronal mass ejection (CME), the phenomenon where the sun releases huge magnetic fields into the solar system.
The heliosphere is the scientific term for the area of space in which the solar winds have an influence, and it encompasses the entire solar system. NASA aims to get a closer understanding of the origin of the solar winds, as well as deeper knowledge of the workings of solar activity such as CME, by observing the sun up-close.
Using similar technology, NASA was recently able to announce a near-miss for earth in 2012. They showed evidence of an off-the-chart solar storm which was a mere 9 days away from colliding with our orbit. If the earth had received a direct blow, the solar storm could have caused immense damage to satellites and power systems, as well as gifting a rare widespread display of the aurora borealis.
There is still a lot for scientists to understand about the dynamics of solar activity. NASA belief they can facilitate progress with their plan to launch the Solar Orbiter. By being close enough to the sun, they say they will be able to take accurate measurements of solar winds, fields, waves, and energetic particles. These measurements are expected to be more relevant than those taken from satellites closer to earth, because they have not had their properties altered by transportation, or any other process.
The collaborator’s on the project, European Space Agency, are to provide the spacecraft, which will be built by Astrium, UK.
United Launch Services LLC, have been contracted to launch the Solar Orbiter into space from the Kennedy Space Centre, and the current expected date for the launch is June 2017. The $172.7 million contract is paid to the LLC for them to process the spacecraft, handle it’s payload, take care of it’s launch, and to monitor and track the flight.
NASA says that once launched the Solar Orbiter will aim to make an elliptical orbit around the sun, getting as close as 0.28AU, and will remain in an in-elliptic phase close to co-rotating with the sun. Following this phase, the Solar Orbiter will use gravity assist maneuvers from Venus in order to reach higher helioaltitudes.
All of the while the Solar Orbiter will be able to relay tons of information back to the world, using both in-situ and remote-sensing instruments to take measurements of solar activity.
If anyone is feeling a little bit like the solar wind has gone straight over their head, relax. With the Solar Orbiter officially set to make a launch, NASA are soon to be bringing us new knowledge of the workings of the solar system, straight from the source; the sun itself.
By Matthew Warburton