Europe’s solar orbiter sets controls for heart of the sun

The Solar Orbiter undergoes checks before its launch earlier this year. [Photo: ESA]

A European Space Agency (ESA) spacecraft will begin a flyby of the Sun on Monday (15 June) in order to take what scientists claim will be the closest-ever photos of our solar system’s star.

ESA’s Solar Orbiter was launched in February and will come within 77 million kilometres of the Sun during this first approach, roughly half the distance between the star and Earth. It will eventually reach 42 million km during its multi-year mission.

The orbiter’s six on-board telescopes will allow it to capture high-resolution images of the star, which ESA scientists hope to download and publish in mid-July.

“We have never taken pictures of the Sun from a closer distance than this,” said project member Daniel Müller, who explained that observations from Earth are less detailed because of the planet’s thick atmosphere.

ESA’s probe will not come near NASA’s record for the closest human-made object to the Sun. The Parker Probe shattered the previous record of roughly 40 million km in 2018 and is due to come within seven million km in 2024.

However, NASA’s orbiter cannot look directly at the Sun because of the immense heat and radiation, and the US space agency’s closest telescopes (SDO) pale in comparison to the peering-power of ESA’s probe.

“Because we are currently at half the distance to the Sun, our images have twice SDO’s resolution during this perihelion [closest point of an orbit to an astronomical body],” Müller explained.

Some of the main objectives of the mission are to gain a better understanding of solar winds and get a first detailed glimpse of the Sun’s polar regions. That will help scientists gather data on the star’s immensely powerful magnetic field.

The Solar Orbiter was built in the UK by aerospace giant Airbus, with development kicking off back in 2012. Intended to operate for 10 years, the satellite is capable of withstanding temperatures of 500 degrees Celsius, which is hot enough to melt lead.

Europe’s space aspirations have taken a battering lately thanks to the coronavirus outbreak, which first nixed the launch of a Mars probe and then put paid to any hope of debuting a next-generation rocket this year.

Space technology relies heavily on complex supply chains and cross-border expertise, both of which were heavily impacted by pandemic-related border closures and quarantine measures.

ESA is also likely to be delivered a smaller budget from the European Union, as the European Commission knocked nearly €3 billion off the sector’s funding in its latest long-term budget proposal. A virtual Council later this week will see leaders relaunch budget talks.

SpaceX’s historic launch gives Europe pause for thought

Elon Musk’s company’s success in becoming the first private venture to launch humans into space prompted the head of Europe’s SpaceX-equivalent, Arianespace, to claim on Sunday (31 May) that his firm is capable of the same feat.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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