Canaveral Cape is the launch site for the Solar Orbiter probe, which will be launched on the night from the 9th to the 10th of February. This mission is led by the European Space Agency (ESA), and counts on a strong participation from the NASA, to work on the central question of how the Sun creates and controls the heliosphere.
The Solar Orbiter will study the Sun in detail thanks to the combination of scientific instruments it has and the orbit it will draw around. The probe will get closer to the Sun –up to a distance of 42 million kilometres, meaning that the parts of the Solar Orbital that look towards the Sun will have to be exposed to temperatures over 500ºC, while the parts remaining in the shadow will be around -180ºC. During this mission, the orbit will increase its inclination towards the ecliptic up to 30ºC, which will enable researchers getting high resolution images of the solar poles.
A team from the Institute of Cosmos Sciences of the University of Barcelona (ICCUB-IEEC) has worked on one of the ten facilities of the Solar Orbiter. This instrument is called SO/PHI (Polarimetric and Helioseismic Imager), which will provide high precision measures of the magnetic field of the solar photosphere.
ICCUB took care of the development and implementation of an Image Stabilization System (ISS), which will enable the balance of the probe movements to get images with the required quality. “Solar Orbiter is the most complete sola mission from an instrumental point of view”, notes Josep M Gómez Cama, ICCUB researcher and member of the Department of Electronical and Biomedical Engineering of the UB. Specifically, the probe has ten tools that weight a total of 209 kilograms. “The limitation of weight is another challenge when designing the PHI instrument, which weighs about 30 Kg”, notes Gómez Cama. Four of these instruments, which allow the detection of solar wind (plasma and magnetic field), radiation and emitted particles, work in the original place, while the other six instruments do so in a remote manner and allow researchers getting images in different wave longitudes and getting a spectroscopy of the photosphere and solar corona.
A step forward in space meteorology
Moreover, the researchers from the Heliospheric Physics and Space Weather (HPSWG) of the UB provided scientific support to the team of the Energetic Particle Detector (EPD). The members of HPSWG, experts in data analysis and modelling, developed models to predict the environment of particle radiation the Solar Orbiter will find, and are working on tools to ease the analysis of the measures of the particles it will collect.
The Solar Orbiter probe will enable the monitoring of a specific area of the Sun as well as the planning of specific campaigns remotely. According to Àngels aran, researcher from the HPSWG group, “the obtained results by Solar Orbiter will enable us to understand the physics that connect the star with the interplanetary environment and therefore adjust the current models of space weather”. “Also –she adds-, the combination of Solar Orbiter observations with the obtained data from other probes in the interplanetary space, and in terrestrial environment, will provide us with a stereo view of the same situation”.
The Sun is a medium-mass star in a large and stable state of its evolution. However, it undergoes periodic eruptions in the short run and which are hard to predict, known as solar activity. The dominance of the Sun gets beyond the solar atmosphere, through the solar wind, leading to the heliosphere, which includes the interplanetary space. Understanding the coupling of the Sun and the heliosphere is essential to understand the functioning of our solar system. The different conditions of the solar wind and solar activity are the main motors of the space weather. Space meteorology refers to the response of the space environment to solar storms, which can have a significant impact on current society. For instance, solar activity, such as solar eruptions and coronal mass ejections, can cause gusts of energetic particles causing damage in satellites and affecting navigation systems.
These episodes of solar energetic particles, mainly heavy electrons, protons and ions, limit the human activity in space. These are hard to predict due the incomplete knowledge of involved basic physical processes and the lack of observations in the heliosphere.
The combination of the different instruments in the spaceship and its orbit will provide new information to understand solar features and its connection with heliosphere, and it will also help to understand the generation of solar storms.
UB researchers Josep M López Cama and Àngels Aran will be present during the launch of the probe. Moreover, ICCUB is organizing a session after the launch, in which the following will take part: Àngels Aran (ICCUB-IEEC), José Bosch (ICCUB), Manuel Carmona (ICCUB) and David Roma (ICCUB-IEEC). The activity will take place in the room Eduard Fontseré at the Faculty of Physics on February 14.