NASA is currently developing a Solar Orbiter Heliospheric Imager (SoloHI) and Heavy Ion Sensor (HIS). Both instruments will be placed on the European Space Agency’s newly selected Solar Orbiter mission.
The unmanned spacecraft has been tapped to observe the sun from a closer distance than any previous mission. At its closest approach, the European-led project will operate approximately 21 million miles from the sun’s surface – near the orbit of Mercury and roughly 25% of the distance from the sun to the Earth.
As NASA scientist Barbara Giles points out, the unique vantage point will enhance the Orbiter’s ability to forecast space weather.
Indeed, sun storms are capable of producing disturbances in electromagnetic fields on Earth that can induce extreme currents in wires, disrupt power lines and cause widespread blackouts. Such storms may also interfere with satellites, the communications systems of airplanes flying near Earth’s poles and cell phone service.
“Solar Orbiter is an exciting mission that will improve our understanding of the sun and its environment,” explained Giles.
“This collaboration will create a new chapter in heliophysics research and continue a strong partnership with the international science community to complement future robotic and human exploration activities.”
To be sure, the Solar Orbiter should be close enough to the sun to sample solar wind shortly after it has been ejected from the sun’s surface. As such, the spacecraft will observe – in great detail – the process that accelerates the wind on the sun’s surface, with subsequent data providing views of the sun’s polar regions and far side.
The spacecraft’s elliptical orbit will also allow it to follow the star’s rotation, facilitating observations of specific areas for much longer than is currently possible.
The Solar Orbiter launch is slated for 2017 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., aboard a NASA-provided expendable launch vehicle.