NASA, in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA), is launching a new spacecraft next month to snap the first pictures of the Sun’s north and south poles, the US space agency announced on Tuesday. The Solar Orbiter spacecraft will have its first opportunity to launch from Cape Canaveral in the US on February 7, 2020, NASA said in a statement. The spacecraft will use Venus’s and the Earth’s gravity to swing itself out of the ecliptic plane -- the swath of space, roughly aligned with the Sun’s equator, where all planets orbit. “Up until Solar Orbiter, all solar imaging instruments have been within the ecliptic plane or very close to it,” said Russell Howard, a space scientist at the Naval Research Lab in the US.
“Now, we’ll be able to look down on the Sun from above,” said Howard, who is also the principal investigator for one of Solar Orbiter’s ten instruments. The Sun plays a central role in shaping space around us. Its massive magnetic field stretches far beyond Pluto, paving a superhighway for charged solar particles known as the solar wind.
When bursts of solar wind hit Earth, they can spark space weather storms that interfere with our GPS and communications satellites -- at their worst, they can even threaten astronauts, the researchers said. To prepare for arriving solar storms, scientists monitor the Sun’s magnetic field. However, their techniques work best with a straight-on view, and the steeper the viewing angle, the noisier the data.