ESA's next generation Sun explorer, Solar Orbiter will be launched in 2017. It will investigate the connections and the coupling between the Sun and the heliosphere, a huge bubble in space created by the solar wind. The solar wind can cause auroras and disrupt satellite-based communication.
Since the beginning of the 1990's, six unprecedented spacecraft built in Europe for the Ulysses, SOHO and Cluster missions have made many amazing discoveries about the Sun, and how its storms affect the Earth. Yet, scientists still cannot predict the unruly behaviour of the star on which our lives depend. A closer look at the Sun is required.
Solar Orbiter is intended to brave the fierce heat and carry its telescopes to nearly one quarter of the Earth's distance from the Sun, where sunlight will be thirteen times more intense than satellites in the vicinity of the Earth feel it. The spacecraft must also endure powerful bursts of atomic particles from explosions in the solar atmosphere. The reward will come in the form of sharp images obtained together with unprecedented measurements of the local near-Sun phenomena.
The pictures of the weird solar landscapes, where glowing gas dances and forms loops in the strong magnetic field, will be stunning. They will show details down to 200 kilometres wide, with a tiny fraction of the width of the Sun's visible disc, 1.4 million kilometres.
The scientific goals of the Solar Orbiter are:
to determine in-situ the properties and dynamics of plasma, fields and particles in the near-Sun heliosphere
to survey the fine detail of the Sun's magnetised atmosphere
to identify the links between activity on the Sun's surface and the resulting evolution of the corona and inner heliosphere, using solar co-rotation passes
to observe and characterise the Sun's polar regions and equatorial corona from high latitudes