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.


Saudis turn to technology for Eid gatherings

Updated 24 May 2020

Saudis turn to technology for Eid gatherings

  • Family gatherings or not, the use of video-calling applications is keeping families close and loved ones even closer

JEDDAH: Many special Eid-related traditions have been broken this year as families are forced to stay home because of coronavirus restrictions. But technology has come to the rescue with many relying on video calls to bring family members and loved ones closer. 

Eid Al-Fitr is the occasion Saudis look forward to most — attending Eid prayers at the neighborhood mosque, wearing new clothes, the scent of frankincense around the home, and gathering with cousins at grandparents’ houses decked out with lights and decorations to mark the joyous occasion. 

As the Kingdom endures a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), many Saudis are refusing to allow the pandemic to break their spirits during Eid. Family gatherings or not, the use of video-calling applications is keeping families close and loved ones even closer.

Among those keeping Eid traditions alive, 27-year-old Mohammed Khayat has found a way to connect with his family who live outside Jeddah. Using Zoom, a popular videoconference platform, he has created a fun competition with family members. 

“There will be two boxes; one with easy questions, the other one with difficult questions. An example from the first box would be ‘act out a song, and if someone guessed it right, you win.’ Or ‘When was Jeddah founded?’ or ‘Who is the 17th grandson of my grandmother?’” he told Arab News.

Khayat highlighted the bright side of Eid during the pandemic with everyone available for a virtual gathering.

“It’s going to be fun, because not all family members are usually present in most of our Eid celebrations at the same time. Many live in different cities or even outside the Kingdom. Yes, it’s going to be online, but it’s a great chance for everyone to gather at the same time.”

Lujain Al-Jehani, 26, plans to put on her best clothes and enjoy Eid despite the global despair.

“We’re going to wear our Eid clothes, dress up, put makeup on, and do our hair and nails. We’re cleaning the house and preparing everything as we always do in Eid, but we’re not expecting any guests this year. It’s just us family together,” she told Arab News.

Before the pandemic, Al-Jehani usually spent Eid with her cousins, often spending the entire day at her grandmother’s house to enjoy the festivities. This year, Al-Jehani said that she and her family will keep their spirits high because “it’s still Eid.”

“I’m going to be spending quality time with my family at home. We will play boardgames, listen to music, have breakfast together and hang some Eid decorations. We want to do our Eid traditions within our family because it’s still Eid. We’ll enjoy spending Eid with our family. Thank God, we’re in good health and we’re together.”