Exploring our Nearest Star
Solar Orbiter will take us closer to the Sun than we’ve ever traveled. It will study the solar atmosphere in finer detail and higher resolution than any mission before. Thanks to it’s unique orbit around the Sun and it’s ability to measure the space environment where it flies, Solar Orbiter will deliver an unprecedented view and understanding of the Sun’s space environment and the first view of the Sun’s polar regions. Find out more on the ESA’s Official Solar Orbiter Website.
Launch and Orbit
Solar Orbiter is scheduled to launch in 2018 (originally 2017) from Cape Canaveral on board an Atlas V or Delta IV rocket.
Following launch, Solar Orbiter will begin its 3.4 year journey to the Sun. In order to reach it’s near-Sun orbit, the spacecraft with use a series of gravity assists from Venus and the Earth, in essence, using them to catapult itself towards the Sun.
Once in place, Solar Orbiter will have a 168-day-long elliptical solar orbit with close encounters to the Sun every five months. During these close encounters, the spacecraft will come in as close as within 0.28 AU of the Sun. 1 AU or Astronomical Unit is the distance between the Earth and Sun, 150 million km (93 million miles).
A suite of 10 instruments has been selected as the scientific payload for the ESA Solar Orbiter mission:
- X-ray Imager (STIX)
STIX will image the extremely hot Plasma heated to tens of millions of degrees and the high-energy electrons accelerated to nearly the speed of light during a solar flare. The STIX instrument is a follow-on instrument to the RHESSI mission currently in flight.
- Energetic Particle Detector (EPD) and the Suprathermal Ion Spectrograph
EPD will measure the properties of the charged particles around the spacecraft including their source, acceleration mechanisms, and how they are transported. The Suprathermal Ion Spectrograph will help us identify what elements are coming from the Sun and determine what wavelengths they have, i.e. how hot they are.
- Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI)
EUI will provide detailed movies of various layers of the solar atmosphere, helping scientists clarify the link between the solar surface and the corona.
- Magnetometer (MAG)
MAG will provide measurements of the heliospheric magnetic field at the spacecraft location allowing scientists to better understand: (1) how the Sun’s magnetic field links into space and evolves over the solar cycle, (2) how particles from the Sun are accelerated and propagate around the solar system, and (3) how the corona and solar wind are heated.
- Coronagraph (METIS/COR)
METIS/COR will create an artificial eclipse of the Sun in order to image the solar corona (only visible during an eclipse) and be able to view the structure and dynamics of the full corona for the very first time. This is a region that is crucial in understanding how solar atmospheric phenomena are linked to and evolve in the inner heliosphere.
- Visible Imager & Magnetograph (PHI)
The visible imager and magnetograph, PHI, will provide high-resolution and whole Sun measurements of the magnetic field on the surface of the Sun but at much higher detail due to the spacecrafts close orbit to the Sun.
- Radio and Plasma Waves (RPW)
The RPW experiment is unique amongst the Solar Orbiter instruments in that it makes both measurements of the Sun, and measurements at the spacecraft. It will measure radio waves coming from the Sun and those passing the spacecraft.
- Heliospheric Imager (SoloHI) [Funded by NASA]
SoloHI will provide revolutionary measurements to pinpoint coronal mass ejections or CMEs and watch their evolution as they pass the spacecraft and move away from the Sun.
- EUV Spectrometer (SPICE)
SPICE will image various atmospheric layers of the Sun and help provide insight into the elements that make up these layers of the Sun.
- Solar Wind Plasma Analyser (SWA)
SWA consists of a suite of sensors that will measure the density, velocity, and temperature of solar wind ions and electrons present at the spacecraft.