NASA and the European Space Agency have teamed up to send a new spacecraft called Solar Orbiter to study the Sun’s poles. The space agencies announced the mission on Monday, explaining that this effort will involve snapping the first-ever images of our star’s north pole and south pole. Assuming everything goes as planned, Solar Orbiter will be launched from Florida early next month.
Solar Orbiter will be the first spacecraft to take a look at the Sun’s poles, according to NASA, which says the spacecraft will launch from Cape Canaveral on February 7 with the help of an Atlas V rocket. The unique aspect of this launch will be the strategic use of Earth’s and Venus’s gravity to pop the spacecraft out of the ecliptic plane.
Until now, all solar instruments sent into space have either operated within the plane or ‘very close to it,’ according to the Naval Research Lab’s Russell Howard. By leaving the ecliptic plane, NASA and ESA researchers will have the opportunity to ‘look down on the Sun from above.’
The Sun’s poles play an important role in anticipating the space weather storms that can impact astronauts and mess with GPS systems. According to NASA, the techniques used to prepare for these storms result in ‘noisier’ data because the poles are observed from ecliptic plane. This results in ‘major gaps in the data,’ the space agency explains, reducing the accuracy of models used to forecast space weather.
This isn’t the first time NASA and the ESA have teamed up to study the Sun’s poles. Back in 1990, the duo launched a spacecraft called Ulysses that successfully made three passes around the Sun; it is the only spacecraft at this point in time to have passed over the Sun’s poles. Ulysses didn’t get as close to the Sun as Solar Orbiter will, however, and it didn’t carry as many instruments.