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Solar Orbiter Begins Historic Mission

Spacecraft will provide first glimpses of sun's pole
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 10, 2020 1:18 AM CST
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In this wide angle and long exposure shot, United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket lifts off from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Sunday night, Feb. 9, 2020.   (Malcolm Denemark/Florida Today via AP)
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(Newser) – Europe and NASA's Solar Orbiter rocketed into space Sunday night on an unprecedented mission to capture the first pictures of the sun's elusive poles. The $1.5 billion spacecraft will join NASA's Parker Solar Probe, launched 1.5 years ago, in coming perilously close to the sun in order to unveil its secrets. While the Solar Orbiter won't venture close enough to penetrate the sun's corona, or crown-like outer atmosphere, like Parker, it will maneuver into a unique out-of-plane orbit that will take it over both poles, never photographed before, the AP reports. Together with powerful ground observatories, the sun-staring space duo will be like an orchestra, according to Gunther Hasinger, the European Space Agency's science director. "Every instrument plays a different tune, but together they play the symphony of the sun," he says.

Solar Orbiter was made in Europe, along with nine science instruments. NASA provided the 10th instrument and arranged the late-night launch from Cape Canaveral. Nearly 1,000 scientists and engineers from across Europe gathered with their US colleagues under a full moon as United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket blasted off, illuminating the sky for miles around. Crowds also jammed nearby roads and beaches. Solar Orbiter—a boxy 4,000-pound spacecraft with spindly instrument booms and antennas—will swing past Venus in December and again next year, and then past Earth, using the planets' gravity to alter its path. Full science operations will begin in late 2021, with the first close solar encounter in 2022 and more every six months.

(Read more spacecraft stories.)

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