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Solar Orbiter: mankind is one step closer to the first image of the sun’s poles

European solar orbiter launched on 9 February 2020 at 11:30 EST; Sunday made its very first close pass to the sun on 14 June 2020. The 10-year solar orbiter mission reaches a distance of 77 million kilometers from the sun. During the entire mission, the orbiter will be orbiting the sun from mercury’s orbit at a distance of 42 million kilometers from the burning star.

Solar Orbiter Mission

The Solar Orbiter spacecraft is a cumulative mission of the European Space Agency and NASA. The Orbiter was launched from Cape Canaveral Airforce Station in Florida; launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.

For the past years, the Parker Solar Probe has been breaking all the records in the history of humankind. Parker’s nearest reach was 4 million miles from the sun’s surface moving at the speed of 692,000 Km/h. The probe has collected unprecedented data for the very first time. But like every other instrument, it has parochial drawbacks and the plaintive truth is, it cannot provide us a picture of the sun’s poles.

If we are studying the only star in our solar system need to see it. So, NASA and ESA came up with the ‘Solar Orbiter’.Solar Orbiter will capture the images of the sun, especially its poles. We have yet not taken any image of the solar polar regions of the sun. Poles of the sun have enormous importance in better understanding the driving mechanism of our home star.

Why do we want to explore the sun?

Sun plays a vital role in our lives, it’s no hidden truth. For millennials humans, as smarter beings have understood that every form of life on earth directly or indirectly depends on the sun. Sun can be seen as an exploring ground from the start of history.

We want to explore the sun because it holds a lot of hidden secrets that need to be solved. So the solar orbiter is an international collaboration to enhance the growing knowledge about the sun.

The solar orbiter will be taking images and gathering data about the sun’s surface magnetic field and solar winds mainly focusing on the sun’s polar region. Before this Scientists have launched various missions for understanding the nature and mechanism of the home star but none like the Parker Solar Probe and Solar Orbiter. Both missions will work together and will paint a clearer picture of the sun’s surface and its dynamic behavior than ever before.

Difference between Solar Orbiter and Parker Solar Probe

Both the Solar Orbiter and Parker Solar Probe have extensive capabilities. The Parker Solar Probe could reach a temperature of over 1400 degrees centigrade. At this high temperature, it was impossible to mount cameras. But the Solar Orbiter will just experience temperature over 500 degrees centigrade; at this temperature, cameras can survive and still click images of the sun.

Both the Solar Orbiter and Parker Solar Probe is important, and collaboration of the both will provide data that will be comprehensible. The solar orbiter will measure the Solar winds and fly past the spacecraft and give the images of the sun’s surface and its poles. On the other hand, Parker Solar Probe will measure the solar winds at a different location, very near to the sun.

Solar Winds

Understanding solar winds are important because it defines the magnetosphere of our planet. Sun is 151.98 million km away from us but still; we can feel its presence everywhere in the form of heat and light. But beyond these obvious things, the sun’s surface also creates events known as transients which include flares, coronal mass ejection, and shock waves.

All the time on the surface of the sun big explosions keep happening named coronal mass ejection. This mass ejection releases a considerably large amount of plasma accompanied by a magnetic field in the solar system.

animated image showing a CME colliding with Earth's magnetosphere
Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Scientific Visualization Studio/Community-Coordinated Modeling Center

Our Earth’s magnetic field protects us from these solar winds. But sometimes when the sun becomes extremely violent our earth’s magnetic field might not be able to protect us.

This disruption in the solar winds might affect radio and GPS communication. In the extremest cases could lead to power outages. Since with every passing day, we are becoming more and more reliant on technology, unfurling the turbulent nature of the sun is more vital than ever.

How is solar orbiter helpful?

The solar orbiter consists of a comprehensive suite of 10 scientific instruments. It has four instruments that measure the solar wind passing past the spacecraft, known as “in Suit Instruments”. And six remote sensing instruments that measure photons, meaning taking images of the sun and the surrounding coronal and hemisphere.

The remote sensing equipment includes three different varieties of the imager, Ultraviolet, Visible, and Hemispheric. As well as a spectral imager, chronograph, and an X-ray spectrometer telescope. Each of these instruments specializes in viewing the sun in all these wavelengths.

The ‘In Suite Instrument” on the other hand, includes a magnetometer, an energetic particle detector, a radio and plasma wave sensor, and a solar wind plasma analyzer. Most of which can be found on the boom in the shadow of the heat shield due to their sensitivity to the electromagnetic signature of the spacecraft itself.

Heat Protection: Equipment sheltered behind powerful titanium, aluminum, and solar black. It has a massive heat shield which is about 2½ meters and it protects solar orbiters from a huge amount of heat from the sun.
In the front, the heat shield is coated with Solar Black, a material made from calcium phosphate that can tolerate ultraviolet radiation and energetic particle. Behind that is a thin 0.05-millimeter surface layer of titanium foil backed up with 18 layers of titanium insulation. The structure also includes an aluminum honeycomb support panel, carbon fiber skins, and more insulation and gaps between it all to redirect heat to the sides.

Future is near

Solar Orbiter is giving us new hope. This is a 10-year-long mission, and this was its first close approach. The next remarkable event for this orbiter would be when it will pass flyby in the Venus orbit, which will hopefully happen in December 2020.

The full mission will begin when the checking of all 10 scientific instruments on board including the imager will start giving the regular observational images. Soon in the future we will know about our home star’s mechanism and will most probably have the very first picture of the sun’s poles

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