72ºF

ULA launches Solar Orbiter spacecraft on mission to study sun’s poles

Atlas V rocket launched NASA-ESA from Cape Canaveral at 11:03 p.m.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – There was a good reason Sunday to stay up late on a school or work night: To watch a rocket blast off from the Space Coast sending a NASA and European Space Agency spacecraft on its mission to study the sun.

All systems were “Go” Sunday night for a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket to liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41 carrying the NASA and ESA Solar Orbiter spacecraft. The rocket launched into the night lit by a full moon at 11:03 p.m., the start of a two-hour window.

This mission marks the second time in two years ULA launched a NASA solar mission. In August 2018, another Atlas V launched NASA’s Parker Solar Probe. The mission made history as the closest spacecraft to the sun. The Solar Orbiter, a joint mission by NASA and ESA, will also achieve a first in spaceflight becoming the first to photograph the sun’s elusive poles.

Once the Solar Orbiter officially begins its mission, the two spacecraft will work in tandem to unlock mystery’s of our solar system’s star. According to NASA, as Parker samples solar particles up close, Solar Orbiter will capture imagery from farther away. The two spacecraft will also occasionally focus on the same area to measure the magnetic field lines or streams of solar wind. To learn more about the Solar Orbiter’s mission, click here.

The Solar Orbiter spacecraft is prepared for encapsulation in the United Launch Alliance Atlas V payload fairing inside the Astrotech Space Operations facility in Titusville, Florida, on Jan. 20, 2020.
The Solar Orbiter spacecraft is prepared for encapsulation in the United Launch Alliance Atlas V payload fairing inside the Astrotech Space Operations facility in Titusville, Florida, on Jan. 20, 2020. (For copyright and restrictions, refer to http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/guidelines/ index.html)

To capture the sun’s poles, Solar Orbiter will fly as close as 26 million miles from the sun. The get that close, the spacecraft has a titanium heat shield that can withstand the frigid conditions of space and the heat of the sun at more than 900 degrees. That heat shield protects the spacecraft’s 10 science instruments, including a high-resolution telescopes, designed to capture images of the sun’s poles and its inner workings.

In order the study the sun’s poles, the Solar Orbiter will fly around the sun on a highly inclined orbit. After launch the spacecraft will use the gravity of Earth and Venus to slingshot itself out of a more typical orbit to view of the sun’s polar regions.

Solar Orbiter will help improve space weather predictions that can interrupt GPS and radio communications on Earth.


Launch details

Rocket: Atlas V 441

Payload: NASA and ESA’s Solar Orbiter spacecraft

Where: Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41

Launch window: Feb. 9-10, 11:03 p.m. - 1:03 a.m.

Backup launch dates: Feb. 10 and 11


About the Author: