Solar Orbiter set to launch on February 7

A new space mission is set to launch on February 7 and is called the Solar Orbiter. It's a collaboration between the ESA and NASA. The first launch window for the spacecraft will come on February 7 at 11:15 p.m. EST. The launch will happen at Cape Canaveral aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.

Once in space, the Solar Orbiter will use the gravity of Earth and Venus to swing itself out of the ecliptic plane. Once in its proper orbit, the spacecraft will give the first-ever images of the poles of the Sun. NASA says that until the Solar Orbiter, all solar measuring instruments have been within the ecliptic plane or very close to it.

The new spacecraft will allow scientists to view the Sun from above. Solar Orbiter will give scientists around the globe new data for forecasting space weather events. Scientists say that seeing the poles of the Sun is important as they will allow scientists to model more accurately.

Some believe that by observing the poles, we may be able to learn why the Sun is on an approximately 11-year solar cycle between its maximum and minimum. Observations may also show why some solar maximums are stronger than others. Observing the changing magnetic field could answer all the questions.

The only past spacecraft to fly over the Sun's poles was an ESA/NASA joint venture launched in 1990 called Ulysses. It made three passes around the Sun before being decommissioned in 2009. That spacecraft was never closer to the Sun than Earth distance. Solar Orbiter will pass inside the orbit of Mercury and will have four in situ instruments that see with remote sensing. It will also have the closest Sun-facing cameras that have ever looked at the Sun.