|Mission type||Solar heliophysics orbiter|
|Operator||ESA / NASA|
|Mission duration||7 years (nominal)|
+ 3 years (extended)
Elapsed: 3 years, 6 months and 15 days
|Manufacturer||Airbus Defence and Space|
|Launch mass||1,800 kg (4,000 lb)|
|Payload mass||209 kg (461 lb)|
|Dimensions||2.5 × 3.1 × 2.7 m (8 × 10 × 9 ft)|
|Start of mission|
|Launch date||10 February 2020, 04:03 UTC|
|Rocket||Atlas V 411 (AV-087)|
|Launch site||Cape Canaveral, SLC-41|
|Contractor||United Launch Alliance|
|Entered service||November 2021|
(start of main mission)
|Perihelion altitude||0.28 au|
|Aphelion altitude||0.91 au|
|Inclination||24° (nominal mission)|
33° (extended mission)
|Focal length||2.5 m|
|Wavelengths||Visible light, ultraviolet, X-rays|
Insignia for the Solar Orbiter mission.
The Solar Orbiter (SO) is a Sun-observing probe developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) with a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) contribution. Solar Orbiter, designed to obtain detailed measurements of the inner heliosphere and the nascent solar wind, will also perform close observations of the polar regions of the Sun which is difficult to do from Earth. These observations are important in investigating how the Sun creates and controls its heliosphere.
SO makes observations of the Sun from an eccentric orbit moving as close as ≈60 solar radii (RS), or 0.284 astronomical units (au), placing it inside Mercury's perihelion of 0.3075 au. During the mission the orbital inclination will be raised to about 24°. The total mission cost is US$1.5 billion, counting both ESA and NASA contributions.
SO was launched on 10 February 2020 from Cape Canaveral, Florida (USA). The nominal mission is planned until the end of 2026, with a potential extension until 2030.
The Solar Orbiter spacecraft is a Sun-pointed, three-axis stabilised platform with a dedicated heat shield to provide protection from the high levels of solar flux near perihelion. The spacecraft provides a stable platform to accommodate the combination of remote-sensing and in situ instrumentation in an electromagnetically clean environment. The 21 sensors were configured on the spacecraft to allow each to conduct its in situ or remote-sensing experiments with both access to and protection from the solar environment. Solar Orbiter has inherited technology from previous missions, such as the solar arrays from the BepiColombo Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO). The solar arrays can be rotated about their longitudinal axis to avoid overheating when close to the Sun. A battery pack provides supplementary power at other points in the mission such as eclipse periods encountered during planetary flybys.
The Telemetry, Tracking and Command Subsystem provides the communication link capability with the Earth in X-band. The subsystem supports telemetry, telecommand and ranging. Low-Gain Antennas are used for Launch and Early Orbit Phase (LEOP) and now function as a back-up during the mission phase when steerable Medium- and High-Gain Antennas are in use. The High-Temperature High-Gain Antenna needs to point to a wide range of positions to achieve a link with the ground station and to be able to downlink sufficient volumes of data. Its design was adapted from the BepiColombo mission. The antenna can be folded in to gain protection from Solar Orbiter's heat shield if necessary. Most data will therefore initially be stored in on-board memory and sent back to Earth at the earliest possible opportunity.
The ground station at Malargüe (Argentina), with a 35-metre (115 ft) antenna, is used for 4 to 8 hours/day (effective). ESA's Malargüe ground station will be used for all operations throughout the mission with the ground stations in New Norcia, Australia, and Cebreros, Spain, acting as backup when necessary.
During nominal science operations, science data is downlinked for eight hours during each communication period with the ground station. Additional eight-hour downlink passes are scheduled as needed to reach the required total science data return of the mission. The Solar Orbiter ground segment makes maximum reuse of ESA's infrastructure for Deep Space missions:
The Science Operations Centre was responsible for mission planning and the generation of payload operations requests to the MOC, as well as science data archiving. The SOC has been operational for the active science phase of the mission, i.e. from the beginning of the Cruise Phase onwards. The handover of payload operations from the MOC to the SOC is performed at the end of the Near-Earth Commissioning Phase (NECP). ESA's Malargüe Station in Argentina will be used for all operations throughout the mission, with the ground stations of New Norcia Station, Australia, and Cebreros Station, Spain, acting as backup when necessary.
During the initial cruise phase, which lasted until November 2021, Solar Orbiter performed two gravity-assist manoeuvres around Venus and one around Earth to alter the spacecraft's trajectory, guiding it towards the innermost regions of the Solar System. At the same time, Solar Orbiter acquired in situ data to characterise and calibrate its remote-sensing instruments. The first close solar pass took place on 26 March 2022 at around a third of Earth's distance from the Sun.
The spacecraft's orbit has been chosen to be 'in resonance' with Venus, which means that it will return to the planet's vicinity every few orbits and can again use the planet's gravity to alter or tilt its orbit. Initially, Solar Orbiter will be confined to the same plane as the planets, but each encounter of Venus will increase its orbital inclination. For example, after the 2025 Venus encounter, it will make its first solar pass at 17° inclination, increasing to 33° during a proposed mission extension phase, bringing even more of the polar regions into direct view.
The spacecraft makes a close approach to the Sun every six months. The closest approach will be positioned to allow a repeated study of the same region of the solar atmosphere. Solar Orbiter will be able to observe the magnetic activity building up in the atmosphere that can lead to powerful solar flares or eruptions.
Researchers also have the chance to coordinate observations with NASA's Parker Solar Probe mission (2018–2025) which is performing measurements of the Sun's extended corona, as well as other ground-based assets such as the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope.
The objective of the mission is to perform close-up, high-resolution studies of the Sun and its inner heliosphere. The new understanding will help answer these questions:
Since the launch of the mission, a series of papers have been released in three special issues of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Journal:
Meanwhile, regular "science nuggets" are released on the Solar Orbiter science community website.
The science payload is composed of 10 instruments:
The following institutions operate each instrument:
In April 2015, the launch was set back from July 2017 to October 2018. In August 2017, Solar Orbiter was considered "on track" for a launch in February 2019. The launch occurred on 10 February 2020 on an Atlas V 411.
The Atlas V 411 (AV-087) lifted off from SLC-41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 04:03 UTC. The Solar Orbiter spacecraft separated from the Centaur upper stage nearly 53 minutes later, and the European Space Agency acquired the first signals from the spacecraft a few minutes later.
After launch, Solar Orbiter will take approximately 3.5 years, using repeated gravity assists from Earth and Venus, to reach its operational orbit, an elliptical orbit with perihelion 0.28 AU and aphelion 0.91 AU. The first flyby was of Venus in December 2020. Over the expected mission duration of 7 years, it will use additional gravity assists from Venus to raise its inclination from 0° to 24°, allowing it a better view of the Sun's poles. If an extended mission is approved, the inclination could rise further to 33°.
During its cruise phase to Venus, Solar Orbiter passed through the ion tail of Comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) from 31 May to 1 June 2020. It passed through the comet's dust tail on 6 June 2020.
In June 2020, Solar Orbiter came within 77,000,000 km (48,000,000 mi) of the Sun, and captured the closest pictures of the Sun ever taken.
Solar Orbiter news are regularly updated and listed in the official ESA public pages , as well as on the Twitter/X account .
Images taken by the spacecraft with various instruments can be found on the official Flickr account.