September 30, 2020

Solar Orbiter takes off, hunting for the last secrets of the Sun

“It has been exciting, even if you see it you never get tired. Every takeoff is different, ”says Duncan, a NASA veteran who has seen dozens of launches from Cape Canaveral. However, while the flares that predict the start of this new space adventure are reflected in his pupils, he smiles. “What do you think?”, Asks this editor with interest. “No words!” (Without words), he manages to say. The fascination to witness that unique moment leaves her without arguments. They had already warned him that the night launches – the European probe has left the US base at 11:03 pm – are the most spectacular. And it is true. The contrast of the night closed with the intense red from the Atlas V rocket leaves unique images. And the sound of ignition is hard to explain in words. The ground, the sky, the atmosphere … everything rumbles.

“This is very exciting and, although I have experienced other releases, this has undoubtedly been the most beautiful. With the full moon … has been about to touch it”, Says minutes later Günther Hasinger, director of Science of the Agency that, despite being proud, still does not sing victory. It takes just over an hour to deploy the solar panels, which will mark the success of the mission. “It was the most beautiful launch I’ve ever seen,” adds Favio Fabata, responsible for coordinating the scientific missions of the European Space Agency (ESA). He says it with a perfect Spanish and Chilean accent. But getting here has not been easy.

“Cooperation is always complicated,” adds resigned Favata, one of the architects who have managed to launch this mission jointly with NASA. Sighs. “But, finally we have succeeded.” After two delays in its launch, your baby (which is what each of these missions become) has already been emancipated. So, Europeans put science and Americans power with the Atlas V rocket.

Know the solar poles for the first time

But why travel to the Sun? For unveil the mysteries that we still do not know and that can directly affect the Earth. “We want to be able to touch and see the Sun. We will achieve it with the ten instruments that the probe carries, so it is impossible for me to opt for one. They are like my children, I love them all the same, ”explains Daniel Müller, head of ESA’s Solar Orbiter scientific project. One of the main research areas of the mission is unravel how the sun’s magnetic field works, responsible for the beautiful flares that, from time to time, some of the satellites that passes by photography. “It’s the one that allows you to create those loops that form in the crown,” he adds. And to understand its operation, this probe will be the first to collect information about the solar poles which, unlike on Earth, are exchanged every 11 years for the star’s own rotation.

For the Spanish José Carlos del Toro, studying the solar magnetic field “is fundamental to know much of the phenomena of the activity of the Sun ”. He is the main co-investigator, together with the Max Planck Institute (Germany), of the So / phi instrument. It will be able to create a map of all these, for which it has two telescopes, one of high resolution and another that will observe the entire solar disk. “And at the beginning we also had another camera, but with the future of the project we had to eliminate the idea,” he says. But, without a doubt, one of the incorporations of his project of which he feels most proud is small in size, but key to the development of the mission: “It is the scientific heart, although It is no more than a chip, but it is able to process in 15 minutes what 50 computers together in four hours

But tonight’s success is the beginning of more than a decade of data collection that will be sent to Earth to delve deeper into the knowledge of our Solar System. Solar Orbiter, an ESA mission with collaboration from NASA, will approach only 42 million kilometers of the star to make unprecedented observations and take the first images of its polar regions, allowing it to study and try to predict its behavior and its influence on the Earth.

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