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Solar Orbiter prepares for close-up with the Sun

Posted on 17 Jun 2020 and read 819 times
Solar Orbiter prepares for close-up with the SunPhoto courtesy of NASA

Currently, the Airbus-built Solar Orbiter (SolO) is en route for an encounter with our closest star.

Ian Walters, Airbus’s SolO project manager, said that while humankind has been studying the Sun for hundreds of years, the research has been limited, because data was always collected from distances more or less equal to the star’s separation from Earth.

“The solar wind takes up to four days to get to Earth, and it transforms completely in that time. We can better correlate what is seen with what is felt from the Sun if we can get up close; that is the point of the Solar Orbiter mission.”

Solar Orbiter was launched in February in a joint mission of the European Space Agency and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Travelling closer to the Sun than its nearest planet — Mercury — SolO will make comprehensive measurements of the ‘nascent’ solar wind. For the spacecraft and its 10 instruments to survive temperatures up to 600°C, Airbus designed a protective heat shield with openings for SolO’s five telescopes to ‘peek through’.

Mr Walters says that the most critical heat protection technology is the Stand-off Radiator Assembly (SORA) — a set of radiators sitting on the spacecraft’s side that is always in shadow, enabling them to quickly transfer heat from the instruments into space.

SORA’s thermal straps are made from pyrolytic graphite, which is five-times more conductive than copper wire but ‘flexible like paper’.

“Data from Solar Orbiter can help to make significant improvements to everyday life, particularly when it comes to predicting solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) — the expulsions of plasma and its accompanying magnetic field from the Sun, which can have a major impact on Earth.

In 1859, one such episode took down the world’s telegraph network; a similar event today would severely disrupt our power grids, mobile-phone towers, navigation systems and many other critical technologies.

“If we could predict that a CME was coming our way, we would have about two days’ notice for emergency committees to be activated, instead of the few minutes’ notice we receive today.”