Launched at 4.03am Irish time on 10 February, the joint NASA/ESA Solar Orbiter mission will do what no satellite has done so far – get up close and personal with the sun. Its mission is to provide the first images of the uncharted polar regions of the sun in a bid to better understand the physics behind the heliosphere that influences the entire solar system.

Working in conjunction with NASA’s own Parker Solar Probe, which was launched two years ago, Solar Orbiter will help us better understand why, among other things, solar flares occur and why the surface of the sun is approximately 5,500 degrees Celsius, yet the corona – the outermost layer of the solar atmosphere, 2,000km up – is around 2m degrees Celsius.

It’s expected to take just under two years for Solar Orbiter to reach its initial operational orbit, taking advantage of some gravitational slingshots along the way. The entire mission will take seven years.
However, from an Irish perspective, it’s worth noting the strong links running throughout both the satellite itself and the scientific analysis that will occur over the duration of the mission.

Playing a vital role
For example, Dublin-based SME Enbio has developed the protective heat-resistant layer that will enable the spacecraft to study the sun at an unprecedented level of proximity. This coating is vital for Solar Orbiter to survive the intense radiation of the sun as it comes within 43m km of the star, where it will be subjected to average temperatures of around 500 degrees Celsius.

Another Dublin company that has contributed to the spacecraft is Captec, which is responsible for testing all of the software for Solar Orbiter’s 10 state-of-the-art instruments including its cameras and devices to measure solar magnetic fields.

From a scientific perspective, Prof Peter Gallagher – head of astronomy and astrophysics at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) – has been named as co-investigator for one of these instruments. Along with fellow researchers, he will analyse the data coming from the Solar Telescope Imaging X-Rays instrument.

“Irish research and innovation have played a vital role in the development of the Solar Orbiter,” he said ahead of his journey to the launch at Cape Canaveral in Florida with fellow DIAS researcher Dr Shane Maloney.

“The observations the Orbiter will collect will help scientists better understand what drives the sun’s activity. It is testament to the calibre of researchers working in Ireland that we have such strong Irish involvement in this project.”

Colm Gorey

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