Solar Orbiter, a new mission to the sun by Europe and NASA, to launch next month

Artist's impression of the European-led Solar Orbiter mission circling close to the sun.
Artist's impression of the European-led Solar Orbiter mission circling close to the sun. (Image credit: ESA)

A new sun-studying spacecraft is set to get off the ground soon.

Solar Orbiter, a mission led by the European Space Agency (ESA) with NASA participation, is scheduled to launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Feb. 5 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The liftoff will come just 18 months after NASA's Parker Solar Probe (PSP) took to the skies, kicking off its historic sun-kissing mission. PSP has set the all-time spacecraft speed record and gotten nearer to our star — about 15 million miles (24 million kilometers) — than any other mission in history. 

Related: NASA's Parker Solar Probe Mission to the Sun in Pictures

And PSP will continue to break these records; it will get closer and closer to the sun over its seven-year scientific life, ultimately zooming within a mere 3.8 million miles (6.1 million km) of the solar surface.

Solar Orbiter won't try to match those superlatives; on the closest-approach phases of its highly elliptical orbit, the probe will still be about 26 million miles (42 million km) from the sun. But the ESA-NASA spacecraft will do some special things of its own.

For starters, Solar Orbiter will look directly at the sun, something that PSP doesn't do (and you shouldn't, either). In addition, the ESA-NASA probe will zoom through space substantially out of the ecliptic, the plane in which the solar system's big planets circle. 

This unique perspective will allow Solar Orbiter to get good looks at our star's polar regions, said Holly Gilbert, NASA deputy project scientist for Solar Orbiter.

"We've never been able to image the poles of the sun," Gilbert said last month during a news conference at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco. "That is extremely important for helioseismology, but also for looking at the global magnetic field of the sun. In order to model space weather activity and activity in general on the sun, we need that full global picture of the magnetic field."

Solar Orbiter should flesh out our understanding of the sun in multiple ways. The 3,970-lb. (1,800 kilograms) spacecraft is outfitted with 10 different science instruments, which it will use "to examine how the sun creates and controls the heliosphere, the vast bubble of charged particles blown by the solar wind into the interstellar medium," ESA officials wrote in a mission description.

"The spacecraft will combine in situ and remote sensing observations to gain new information about the solar wind, the heliospheric magnetic field, solar energetic particles, transient interplanetary disturbances and the sun's magnetic field," they added.

There are numerous parallels between the PSP and Solar Orbiter missions. Like PSP, for example, the ESA-led probe will use a series of Venus flybys (plus one of Earth) to reach its operational orbit, which will range from inside Mercury's path to beyond the orbit of Earth. Solar Orbiter will gather most of its data during its close-approach "perihelion passes," as PSP does, and the primary missions of both craft are scheduled to last seven years.

The data gathered by the two probes should mesh well, members of both mission teams have stressed. For example, PSP and Solar Orbiter will enable researchers to study the same solar plasma in detail at two very different points in space — close to the sun's surface and much farther out, in Earth's neighborhood.

"And the fact that [Solar] Orbiter can also measure composition will allow us to determine where on the sun the events happened that created the solar wind that we will be seeing," Marco Velli of UCLA, the PSP observatory scientist, said during the AGU news conference.

Similarly, measurements by the two probes should result in a better understanding of the solar magnetic field, Velli added.

"So, we're really facing a decade, I think, with these two missions — and, of course, the new ground-based instrumentation, the high-resolution solar telescopes that are about to be operated by the NSF [the U.S. National Science Foundation] and, a little bit further in time, in Europe — that we will really unravel solar magnetism in itself," Velli said.

"Magnetism is fundamental to all of astrophysics and the universe itself," he added. "And therefore, I think we can safely say that, with the accomplishment of these two missions, our understanding of what's called the basic astrophysical plasma of the solar system and the universe will have changed entirely." 

Solar Orbiter is a medium-class mission, which means that ESA's contribution will be about 500 million euros ($554 million at current exchange rates). PSP's total price tag is around $1.5 billion.

Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.