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Solar Orbiter launches from Cape Canaveral for journey to the sun

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By Laurie Timmers  with AP
ESA BR-345 Solar Orbiter: Facing the Sun
ESA BR-345 Solar Orbiter: Facing the Sun   -   Copyright  ESA - European Space Agency   -  

After more than a decade of development and five months of rehearsals, the Solar Orbiter has officially launched and set off on its journey to the sun.

The Solar Orbiter is a joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, and it aims to give close-up views of the Sun's polar regions and observe its magnetic activity for the first time.

Images of the poles captured by the spacecraft could help researchers investigate the heliosphere and the solar wind, as well as measure the sun's magnetic field, which drives solar activity like flares and is also responsible for the so-called “space weather” — a phenomenon that affects both astronauts and spacecrafts in space.

The analysis of the collected data will help protect cosmonauts and the spacecrafts’ technology as they travel to the moon and beyond.

Solar Orbiter will use a ballistic trajectory to get into position - using planets to pull it onto the correct course.

"A gravity assist is flying by very close to a planet in order to use the gravitational pull of this planet to change the orbit," explains Jose Manuel Sanchez Perez, a Solar Orbiter Mission Analyst.

"This we do repeatedly with Venus, seven times, and with the Earth one time. By doing so we can finally achieve an orbit that is elliptic, gets close to the Sun and then goes up to the ecliptic - the ecliptic is the plane in which all the planets are orbiting the Sun - and by going out of the ecliptic we get to high latitudes and can we get very clear observations of the Sun's poles”, he continues.

In order to get a close-up view of the Sun, the spacecraft will fly to within 42 million kilometres of the sun, facing temperatures up to 600 degrees Celsius.

After sling-shotting around Venus, it's expected to make its first close solar pass by March 2022.

Solar Orbiter launched from Florida's Cape Canaveral on 9 February at 0503 (CET).