The Solar Orbiter spacecraft, built by Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage, UK, was launched on board a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V space launch vehicle from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 23:03hrs Eastern Standard Time (EST) on 9 February 2020 (04:03hrs GMT, 10 February 2020).
As planned, the spacecraft separated from its launcher 53 minutes after leaving its launch pad, and several minutes later mission control successfully established communications with Solar Orbiter. A promising start to an historic mission.
The European Space Agency (ESA) mission will revolutionise understanding of how the Sun creates and controls the giant bubble of plasma surrounding the Solar System and influences the planets within it.
Solar Orbiter has 10 in-situ and remote sensing instruments to take photographs, spectra, measure solar wind plasma, fields, waves and energetic particles very close to the Sun.
The UK built spacecraft will make a close approach to the Sun every five months; at its closest approach Solar Orbiter will only be 42 million km away, closer than the planet Mercury. During these times it will be positioned for several days over roughly the same region of the Sun’s surface, as the Sun rotates on its axis. This will enable unprecedented observations of magnetic activity building up in the atmosphere that can lead to powerful flares and eruptions.
The spacecraft will use gravity assist manoeuvres at Venus to achieve its elliptical operational orbit and further fly-by manoeuvres to increase its inclination to view the Sun from the Polar Regions for the first time in history.
Solar Orbiter will have to endure temperatures of more than 500°C, hot enough to melt lead. Its heat shield, with a coating called SolarBlack, will continually face the Sun, protecting the sensitive instruments behind it, some of which still require heaters to keep them warm and at optimum operating temperature.