Solar Orbiter launches on mission to reveal Sun’s secrets

Space Orbiter is expected to provide unprecedented insights into the Sun’s atmosphere, its winds and its magnetic fields. (NASA/AFP)
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Updated 10 February 2020

Solar Orbiter launches on mission to reveal Sun’s secrets

  • The mission, a collaboration between the European Space Agency and NASA, successfully blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral
  • Space Orbiter is expected to provide unprecedented insights into the Sun’s atmosphere, its winds and its magnetic fields

MIAMI, United States: The US-European Solar Orbiter probe launched Sunday night from Florida on a voyage to deepen our understanding of the Sun and how it shapes the space weather that impacts technology back on Earth.
The mission, a collaboration between ESA (the European Space Agency) and NASA, successfully blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral at 11:03p.m. and could last up to nine years or more.
At 12:24a.m. Monday the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, received a signal from the spacecraft indicating that its solar panels had successfully deployed.
Space Orbiter is expected to provide unprecedented insights into the Sun’s atmosphere, its winds and its magnetic fields, including how it shapes the heliosphere, the vast swath of space that encompasses our system.
By journeying out of the ecliptic plane — the belt of space roughly aligned with the Sun’s equator, through which the planets orbit — it will acquire the first-ever images of our star’s uncharted polar regions.
Drawing on gravity assists from Earth and Venus, Solar Orbiter will slingshot itself into a bird’s eye view of the Sun’s poles, reaching its primary science orbit in two years’ time.
“I think it was picture perfect, suddenly you really feel like you’re connected to the entire solar system,” said Daniel Muller, ESA project scientist, shortly after the launch.
“You’re here on Earth and you’re launching something that will go close to the Sun.”
“We have one common goal and that is to get the good science out of this mission. I think we’re going to succeed,” added Holly Gilbert, director of NASA’s heliophysics science division.
Ten state-of-the-art instruments on board will record myriad observations to help scientists unlock clues about what drives solar winds and flares.
These emit billions of highly charged particles that impact the Earth, producing the spectacular Northern Lights. But they can also disrupt radar systems, radio networks and even, though rarely, render satellites useless.
The largest solar storm on record hit North America in September 1859, knocking out much of the continent’s telegraph network and bathing the skies in an aurora viewable as far away as the Caribbean.
“Imagine if just half of our satellites were destroyed,” said Matthieu Berthomier, a researcher at the Paris-based Plasma Physics Laboratory. “It would be a disaster for mankind.”
At its closest approach, Solar Orbiter will be nearer to the Sun than Mercury, a mere 42 million kilometers away.
With a custom-designed titanium heat shield, it is built to withstand temperatures as high as 500° Celsius. Its heat-resistant structure is coated in a thin, black layer of calcium phosphate, a charcoal-like powder that is similar to pigments used in prehistoric cave paintings.
The shield will protect the instruments from extreme particle radiation emitted from solar explosions.
All but one of the spacecraft’s telescopes will peep out through holes in the heat shield that open and close in a carefully orchestrated dance, while other instruments will work behind the shadow of the shield.
Just like Earth, the Sun’s poles are extreme regions quite different from the rest of the body. It is covered in coronal holes, cooler stretches where fast-gushing solar wind originates.
Scientists believe this region could be key to understanding what drives its magnetic activity.
Every 11 years, the Sun’s poles flip: north becoming south and vice versa. Just before this event, solar activity increases, sending powerful bursts of solar material into space.
Solar Orbiter will observe the surface as it explodes and record measurements as the material goes by the spacecraft.
The only spacecraft to previously fly over the Sun’s poles was another joint ESA/NASA venture, the Ulysses, launched in 1990. But it got no closer to the Sun than the Earth is.
“You can’t really get much closer than Solar Orbiter is going and still look at the Sun,” ESA’s Muller said.
Solar Orbiter will use three gravity assists to draw its orbit closer to the Sun: two past Venus in December 2020 and August 2021, and one past Earth in November 2021, leading up to its first close pass by the Sun in 2022.
It will work in concert with NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which launched in 2018 and will fly much closer to the Sun, passing through the star’s inner atmosphere to see how energy flows through its corona.


Bill Gates-backed accelerator fund grants $20 million for coronavirus research

Updated 31 March 2020

Bill Gates-backed accelerator fund grants $20 million for coronavirus research

DUBAI: Hopes are being raised that the coronavirus would be understood better and a cure could be developed sooner after three institution were awarded grants by COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, a large-scale initiative launched by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome and Mastercard to speed the development of and access to therapies for the virus.

The $20 million grant to three institutions – the University of Washington, University of Oxford, and La Jolla Institute for Immunology – would fund clinical trials to identify highly potent immunotherapies for the COVID-19 pandemic, the first investments to come from the initiative.

There are currently no broad-spectrum antivirals or immunotherapies available to prevent or treat COVID-19.

“These grants to leading institutions in their fields will advance our understanding of how existing drugs and antibodies can contribute to addressing the pandemic we’re facing around the world,” said Mark Suzman, chief executive officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“These initial investments through the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator will bring rigor to the study of these potential solutions. The way forward will be informed by sound science and shared data.”

The Accelerator’s initial funding was subsequently beefed after the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative committed $25 million and the UK government committed £40 million last week.

Two of the newly announced trials will fund an investigation of two well-established drugs, hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, that have known antiviral properties and have been used to treat malaria and a variety of rheumatological conditions for more than 50 years.

The trials aim to determine whether the drugs are effective as pre- and post-exposure preventive therapy for coronavirus, a statement said.

While these drugs both show initial promise, rigorous scientific evidence is needed to make decisions on how, where and within which populations to use them in this pandemic, it added.

The University of Washington will conduct a multi-site clinical trial in Western Washington and the New York City area, in collaboration with New York University’s School of Medicine, to determine whether hydroxychloroquine can effectively prevent COVID-19 in people already exposed to the infection.

The trial will enroll up to 2,000 asymptomatic men and women who are close contacts of persons with confirmed or pending coronavirus diagnoses.

The Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit meanwhile will lead a placebo-controlled prophylaxis study of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine in preventing COVID-19 in at-risk health care workers, frontline staff, and other high-risk groups.

At least 40,000 participants in Asia and Europe will be randomized to receive either chloroquine (East Asian countries), hydroxychloroquine (United Kingdom and Europe), or a matched film-coated placebo as daily prophylaxis for three months.

In addition to funding drug trials, the Accelerator will provide $1.73 million to the La Jolla Institute for Immunology to establish a Coronavirus Immunotherapy Consortium, known as CoVIC.

The effort will bring together scientists from around the world and enable them to share and evaluate candidate antibodies side by side in a blinded, multidisciplinary analysis to identify ideal therapeutic combinations.

Antibody therapies can be used to protect frontline health care workers, contacts, and others who are exposed, as well as treat those who have already become sick.