Close-up mission to sun gets green light

Posted by Emma Woollacott

The European Space Agency (ESA) has approved a mission to get nearer to the sun than ever before.

Solar Orbiter will get within 26 million miles of the sun, aiming to gather data on how the sun generates and propels the solar wind - the flow of charged particles out towards the planets.

"Solar Orbiter will help scientists to understand processes, such as coronal mass ejections, that affect Earth's citizens by disrupting, for example, radio communication and power transmission," says Alvaro Giménez, ESA's director of science and robotic exploration.
 
The probe will get close enough to sample this solar wind very soon after it's been ejected, while at the same time observing in great detail how the wind is accelerated on the sun's surface.

It should capture detailed images of the sun's far side when it's not visible from Earth, as well as the polar regions.

Launch is planned for 2017 from Cape Canaveral with a NASA-provided Atlas launch vehicle. 

The project is one of two to be selected by ESA, the other being Euclid. Essentially a space telescope, the mission will map out the large-scale structure and evolution of the Universe with greater accuracy than ever before.

Thown out, at least for now, is the Plato mission to search for planets around other stars. But, says ESA, there's a chance it'll get the green light at a future date.

"It was an arduous dilemma for the Science Programme Committee to choose two from the three excellent candidates," says Fabio Favata, head of the Science Program's planning office.

"All of them would produce world-class science and would put Europe at the forefront in the respective fields."