Mankind's examination of the sun has come leaps and bounds since it was first seen through a telescope by Galileo. But this joint mission by NASA and the ESA will finally bring missing perspective to our understanding of the Sun and how it works.
One of the first challenges is the Sun itself. It's gravitational pull extends out even further than Pluto, causing what is known as solar winds, which are highly charged particles gathered in the Sun's gravitational pull that eventually can reach Earth. But that same gravity also keeps the celestial objects in our Solar System in an ecliptic plane of orbit, so trying to break this powerful force is no mean feat.
The mission will be launching on February 7th, 2020 on an Atlas V rocket, designed and produced by United Launch Alliance. The rockets cost upwards of $132 million per rocket to be outfitted for each mission, and is a joint project between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
In order to reach an orbit that would allow the Solar Orbiter to examine the poles, it needs to harness the gravity of both Venus and the Earth to sling it into a wider and wider orbit. This will allow it to reach an apex point in its orbit where it will be able to examine the Sun's poles and take the first images and visual examinations of its poles.
It will be more than 24 years since the poles of the Sun were first examined, by the Ulysses spacecraft back in 1994. But at that point, the spacecraft could only take various measurements, and did not have the capability of capturing actual pictures and footage of what was going on.
Scientists believe that the solar poles could be key to understanding the Sun's activity, particularly as it's gravity inexorably shifts itself to the point that it flips the poles.
Extraordinarily, the Sun's poles actually flip their polarity every 11 years, a process that has significant effects and consequences for Earth.
As the poles near their point of flipping their polarity, solar activity reaches an apex, releasing a large number of waves of radiation towards Earth. This can wreak havoc with GPS, communications, and especially satellites. It is also a potential hazard for astronauts, who are exposed much more directly to these waves than everyone else down on Earth.
We really don't have a great understanding of how these waves of solar energy and particles effect humans and the Earth overall. This project is also aimed at directly examining the Sun as one of these eruptions takes place, and how it effects the surrounding space.
As it observes these eruptions, using a panel of 10 different specialized instruments, the Solar Orbiter will measure a number of various aspects of these interstellar explosions, and the materials contained within.
Solar Orbiter will finally give us a comprehensive look at the Sun, both the star itself, as well as how it effects the surrounding bodies that circle around it. During it's orbit, the spacecraft will pass within 23 million miles of the Sun's surface every 6 months, which will make it the closest object to the Sun in the Solar System at that point.
In order to survive such extreme temperature up to 900 degrees, the Solar Orbiter is fitted with titanium shields covering every inch of it. A careful orchestra of switches and flaps protects the various instrumentation on board open and shut to allow various measurements and images to be taken.
From behind the titanium shield in the shadow of the Sun, other instruments will measure the various particles and matter that are released from the Sun.
The hope is by the end of the 7-year mission, we will have a completely new view of the central star in our Solar System. What do you think we'll discover at the solar poles?