Star performance: Solar Orbiter relies on Dublin 'sunscreen'

“Touch the Sun”: U. professor McComas helps design record-breaking spacecraft

“Touch the Sun”: U. professor McComas helps design record-breaking spacecraft

The big picture: The Solar Orbiter and two other recent Sun-centered missions are allowing scientists to study how space weather - like solar flares - is generated and spread across the solar system.

After much expectation and a startling two-day postponement, NASA and the European Space Agency's (ESA) Solar Orbiter finally propelled on Sunday, February 9, at 11:03 p.m. Eastern.

Solar Orbiter is equipped with ten instruments that can capture observations of the sun's corona (which is its atmosphere), the poles and the solar disk.

ESA astrophysicists plan to use the gravity of Venus to slingshot the satellite out of the ecliptic plane of the solar system and provide scientists with their first views of the uncharted polar regions of the sun.

"We need to know how the sun affects the local environment here on Earth, and also Mars and the moon when we move there", said Ian Walters, project manager for Airbus Defence and Space, which designed and built the spacecraft. NASA's Launch Services Program based at Kennedy managed the launch. Unlike the Solar Orbiter, it will not look directly at the Sun despite being closer to it than the Solar Orbiter will ever be.

The NASA Parker Solar Probe mission will aid scientists in measuring, observing, and imaging the corona. In addition, its closest approach to the sun will also be about 42 million kilometers from its surface.

According to ESA, Proba-3 consists of two small satellites that will be placed together in Earth's orbit where they will align just perfectly to cast an artificial shadow across space eclipsing the Sun.

The Parker mission has the potential to greatly improve scientists' understanding of solar phenomena and ability to predict space weather, helping them to foresee incoming solar energetic particles that can often be unsafe to astronauts and disruptive to electronics. The sun's magnetic field is so massive that it stretches beyond Pluto, providing a pathway for solar wind to travel directly across the solar system.

"This new mission demonstrates the UK's leading role in the global space industry, while supporting our economy, creating jobs and helping establish the United Kingdom as a global science superpower".

To protect the sensitive instruments from the sun's blistering heat, engineers devised a heat shield with an outer black coating made of burned bone charcoal similar to what was used in prehistoric cave paintings. "We have to survive both high heat and extreme cold". "We are going to be able to map what we "touch" with the in situ instruments and what we "see" with remote sensing", said Nieves-Chinchilla. The atmosphere is located in a continuous stream of particles called solar wind, and it is vastly diverse, in a mysterious way.

"The combination of the images and the particle measurements will help us to understand the basic mechanisms of the Solar activity".

Observations of the poles could explain why the sun's magnetic field changes, alternating over an 11-year period.

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