It may not seem like it lately, but the sun does indeed still exist. And NASA is sending a spacecraft to our friendly neighborhood star to get some answers.
The Solar Orbiter, a partnership between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), launched Sunday on a seven-year mission that, if all goes according to plan, will give scientists their first-ever look at the sun’s north and south poles.
That’s an especially big deal for NASA’s space weather forecasters, who are like meteorologists except instead of forecasting snowstorms they’re supposed to predict when the sun’s going to whip up a solar wind and wreak havoc with GPS and communications satellites.
Scientists monitor the sun’s magnetic field for advance warning of a pending solar storm but there are major gaps in the data they receive from existing solar imaging instruments, all of which travel in an ecliptic plane (aligned with planetary orbits). Solar Orbiter will use the gravity of Venus and Earth to swing itself out of that plane.
“The poles are particularly important for us to be able to model more accurately,” Holly Gilbert, NASA project scientist for the mission, said in a statement. “For forecasting space weather events, we need a pretty accurate model of the global magnetic field of the Sun.”
Getting a good look at the poles might also help solve a long-standing mystery: Why the number of sunspots waxes and wanes on an 11-year cycle.
“This is really exploratory science,” said Daniel Müller, ESA project scientist for the mission. “You can’t really get much closer than Solar Orbiter is going and still look at the sun."
Solar Orbiter follows close on the heels of NASA’s 2018 launch of the Parker Solar Probe, which is sampling solar particles up close. According to a statement from NASA, Orbiter will give context to Parker’s observations, and the two spacecraft will occasionally align to measure the same magnetic field lines or streams of solar wind at different times.