Miami – The European Space Agency is set to embark upon one of its most ambitious projects to date, with the launch late Sunday from Florida’s Cape Canaveral of its Solar Orbiter probe bound for the Sun.
The mission, due to blast off from the Kennedy Space Center at 11:03 pm (0403 GMT Monday), is set to last up to nine years.
Scientists say the craft, developed in close cooperation with NASA, is expected to provide unprecedented insights into the Sun’s atmosphere, its winds and its magnetic fields.
It will also garner the first-ever images of the Sun’s uncharted polar regions.
“It will be terra incognita,” Daniel Muller, ESA project scientist for the mission in the Netherlands, was quoted as telling the NASA website. “This is really exploratory science.”
After a fly-by of Venus and Mercury, the satellite is set to hit a maximum speed of 245,000 kilometers per hour (150,000 mph) before settling into orbit around the Sun.
The 10 state-of-the-art instruments on board will record myriad observations to help scientists unlock clues about what drives solar winds and flares.
Those winds and flares emit billions of highly charged particles that impact the Earth, producing the spectacular Northern Lights. But they can also disrupt radar systems, radio networks and even, though rarely, render satellites useless.
Orbiting relatively close to the Sun — at nearly one-quarter Earth’s distance from its star — Solar Orbiter will be exposed to sunlight 13 times stronger than that reaching Earth.
With a custom-designed titanium heat shield, it is designed to withstand temperatures as high as 500 Celsius (930 Fahrenheit). Its heat-resistant structure will also protect its instruments from extreme particle radiation emitted from solar explosions.
The only spacecraft to previously fly over the Sun’s poles was another joint ESA/NASA venture, the Ulysses, launched in 1990. But it got no closer to the Sun than the Earth is.
“You can’t really get much closer than Solar Orbiter is going and still look at the Sun,” Muller said.
The mission will be controlled from the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany.