Solar Orbiter launched atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket, feating a unique, specific configuration of this launch vehicle designed particularly to acquire the nearly 4,000 lb tracking craft off Earth and on its target route to finally approach the Sun.
NASA says the Solar Orbiter will pass closer to the sun than the planet Mercury. After it swings by those two bodies to gain momentum, it'll end up in an orbit around the Sun with a close approach distance of just 26 million miles - still about 100 times as far as the Moon is from Earth, but so close that temperatures at their peak at the spacecraft will reach almost 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
"After some twenty years since inception, six years of construction, and more than a year of testing, together with our industrial partners we have established new high-temperature technologies and completed the challenge of building a spacecraft that is ready to face the Sun and study it up close", said Dr. César García Marirrodriga, ESA's Solar Orbiter project manager. The first one, the cruise phase, will last until November 2021 and use Solar Orbiter's in-situ instruments to obtain information about the environment around the spacecraft, such as electric and magnetic fields. "Hopefully, we'll get to see some interesting pictures".
Solar Orbiter will take the first direct images of the sun's poles, but getting into the right orbit to do this means taking a loopy path through the inner solar system, borrowing thrust from the powerful gravitational fields of Earth and Venus.
Solar Orbiter's head-on views should finally yield a full 3-D view of the Sun, 93 million miles from the Earth. Refined forecasts of solar storms, and other Sun-related disturbances, will improve satellite communications and spacecraft operations in the solar system.
Artist's impression of an Atlas V 411 launching Solar Orbiter into space.
Solar Orbiter was made in Europe, along with nine science instruments.
Solar Orbiter combines two main modes of study.
For more information on the Solar Orbiter and mission objectives, see this informative article that contains everything you need to know. The only other spacecraft to observe the poles was the ESA/NASA Ulysses mission, launched in 1990, but that spacecraft did not have a camera.
"The two together are really flawless", said Guenther Hasinger, ESA's director of science. On that same day, January 29, NASA's Parker Solar Probe made its closest swing pass the sun to date - a record it will continue to break until 2025. The two spacecraft will be able to provide complementary sets of observations.
The mission is created to last at least 10 years.
Solar Orbiter was constructed in the United Kingdom by Airbus, lead by an global collaboration of scientist from ESA.
"It is kind of a golden age for solar physics right now", Fox said during a January 27 media teleconference about the mission.
"So much science still yet to do", she said, "and definitely a great time to be a heliophysicist".