NASA’s Solar Orbiter set for historic mission to the sun

NASA’s Solar Orbiter is set to launch on a historic mission to the sun that will provide the first images of the star’s poles.

The probe is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 11:03 p.m. EST on Feb. 9.

“Solar Orbiter will observe the Sun with high spatial resolution telescopes and capture observations in the environment directly surrounding the spacecraft to create a one-of-a-kind picture of how the Sun can affect the space environment throughout our solar system,” NASA explained in a statement. “The spacecraft also will provide the first-ever images of the Sun’s poles and the never-before-observed magnetic environment there, which helps drive the Sun’s 11-year solar cycle and its periodic outpouring of solar storms.”

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The mission is a collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).

An animation of the Solar Orbiter.

An animation of the Solar Orbiter. (ESA/ATG medialab/NASA)

On its closest approach, the Solar Orbiter will be 26 million miles from the sun, so the probe’s 324-pound heat shield has been designed to withstand heat up to 970 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Although Solar Orbiter goes quite close to the Sun, it also goes quite far away,” said Anne Pacros, the payload manager at the ESA’s European Space Research and Technology Center in the Netherlands, in a statement. “We have to survive both high heat and extreme cold.” Deep in space, the Orbiter will encounter temperatures of minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Scientists have been learning more about Earth’s star in recent years. The $1.5 billion Parker Solar Probe mission, for example, has taken humanity closer to the sun than ever before and is helping scientists shed new light on the star.

On its closest approach in 2024, the Parker Solar Probe will be traveling at approximately 430,000 mph, setting a new speed record for a man-made object.

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In another project, newly released images from the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawaii show the sun’s surface in remarkable, unprecedented detail.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers