NASA Solar Orbiter launches successfully

The Solar Orbiter is a joint effort between the ESA and NASA and is designed to enable the new study of the Sun. The Solar Orbiter launched Sunday at 11:03 p.m. EST. The launch vehicle was a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, and the lift-off happened at Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

At 12:24 a.m. Monday morning, mission controllers at the European Space Operations Centre in Germany received a signal from the spacecraft indicating that its solar panels had deployed successfully. The first two days post-launch will see the Solar Orbiter deploy its instrument boom and several antennas that will communicate with Earth and send data back to controllers.

The orbiter is on a trajectory that will provide the first-ever images of the poles of the Sun. The trajectory will have 22 close approaches to the Sun, bringing the spacecraft within the orbit of Mercury. Solar Orbiter will spend the first three months in the commissioning phase that will see the mission team run checks on the scientific instruments.

The orbiter will need about two years to reach its primary science orbit. The orbiter has two main modes of study. It has in-situ instruments to measure the environment around the spacecraft to detect things like electric and magnetic fields, particles, and waves. The remote-sensing instruments will image the Sun from afar along with its atmosphere and outflow of material.

The cruise phase of the mission will last until November 2021. The in-situ instruments will gather scientific data about the environment around the spacecraft. The remote-sensing telescopes will focus on calibration to prepare for operations near the Sun. The cruise phase includes three gravity assists with two past Venus in December 2020 and August 20201 and one past Earth in November 2021.