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Solar Orbiter on its way to get closer to Sun than ever before

The Solar Orbiter – which aims to unlock the secrets of the Sun – is on its way to the star.

Built by Airbus in Stevenage, it lifted off into space in the Atlas V 411 rocket from Nasa’s Cape Canaveral site in Florida just after 4am UK time.

There were hugs of congratulations and relief at the European Space Agency’s (ESA) European Space Operations Centre at the successful launch.

The Solar Orbiter will enable close-up study of the sun. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab/Nasa

The Solar Orbiter £1.3 billion mission will observe magnetic activity building up in the atmosphere of the Sun that can lead to powerful flares and eruptions, providing new insights into the giant storms raging on its surface.

Predicting when these storms occur could help governments and companies protect these satellites and other communications infrastructure as they can will trip the electronics on satellites, interfere with radio communications and even knock over power grids.

The mission launched on Sunday. Credit: Jared Frankle

The satellite will orbit the star, beaming back high-resolution photos and measuring the solar wind as part of the mission led by the European Space Agency (ESA) and partly funded by the The UK Space Agency.

It will take about two years to reach the Sun, which scientists call the “cruising phase”.

Coated with a heat shield, called SolarBlack, the spacecraft can endure temperatures of more than 500C, hot enough to melt lead.

The satellite will make a close approach to the Sun every five months, and at its closest will only be 26 million miles away, closer than the planet Mercury.

At these times it will be positioned over roughly the same region of the Sun’s surface for several days, as the Sun rotates on its axis and it is from here that it will be best placed to observe the solar storms.

How the Solar Orbiter gets started. Credit: PA Graphics

Signals from the spacecraft were received at New Norcia Station ground station in Australia at 5am, following separation from the launcher upper stage in low Earth orbit.

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Cesar Garcia Marirrodriga, ESA’s Solar Orbiter project manager, said: “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.”

Professor Gunther Hasinger, ESA’s director of science explained why more needs to be known about solar storrms: “As humans, we have always been familiar with the importance of the Sun to life on Earth, observing it and investigating how it works in detail, but we have also long known it has the potential to disrupt everyday life should we be in the firing line of a powerful solar storm.”