Liftoff! Solar Orbiter launches successfully

ESA’s sun-exploring Solar Orbiter will be the first spacecraft ever to fly over the sun’s poles. It’ll study the origin of the solar wind, which has the potential to affect earthly technologies.

ESA’s new sun-exploring mission Solar Orbiter blasted to space this morning aboard a U.S. Atlas V 411 rocket from NASA’s spaceport in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Liftoff took place as expected at 04:03 UTC on Monday, February 10, 2020 (11:03 p.m. EST Sunday, February 9).

Solar Orbiter carries a set of 10 instruments for imaging the surface of the sun and studying its environment. It’ll get as close to the sun as 25 million miles (42 million km); that’s about a quarter of the distance between the sun and Earth. Solar Orbiter will be the first spacecraft to fly over the sun’s poles. It’s expected to shed new light on what gives rise to solar wind, which can affect earthly technologies including electric grids and communications satellites.

You can see the full 2-hour launch replay at ESA.

NASA said:

Solar Orbiter … will provide the first-ever images of the sun’s poles and the never-before-observed magnetic environment there, which helps drive the sun’s 11-year solar cycle and its periodic outpouring of solar storms.

ESA described Solar Orbiter’s path through space:

Solar Orbiter will take the first direct images of the sun’s poles, but getting into the right orbit to do this means taking a loopy path through the inner solar system, borrowing thrust from the powerful gravitational fields of Earth and Venus.

The animation below, from ESA, shows the trajectory of Solar Orbiter around the sun, highlighting the gravity assist maneuvers that will enable the spacecraft to change inclination to observe the sun from different perspectives.

Bottom line: ESA’s sun-exploring Solar Orbiter mission lifted off successfully from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on February 10, 2020.

Deborah Byrd