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NASA, Europe space agency launch Solar Orbiter mission

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NASA, Europe space agency launch Solar Orbiter mission
An Atlas V rocket lifted off at 11:03 p.m. EST Sunday in Florida, carrying the Solar Orbiter probe for NASA and the European Space Agency. Photo courtesy of NASA

ORLANDO, Fla., Feb. 9 (UPI) -- One of the most advanced science missions to study the sun in history -- the Solar Orbiter -- launched aboard an Atlas V rocket from Florida on Sunday night.

The rocket lifted off into a partly cloudy sky with a full moon as planned at 11:03 p.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, adjacent to Kennedy Space Center.

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The Solar Orbiter satellite will aim multiple cameras and sensory equipment at the sun's polar regions, images of which have never been taken. It's part of a concerted effort by NASA and the European Space Agency to better understand solar radiation and solar flares.

"The mission will be able to look at the poles of the sun, which will be the first time ever that we will be able to look at the poles," said Cesar Garcia, Solar Orbiter project manager with the European agency.

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He said the instruments on board will "talk to each other," telling another instrument to take a measurement of an interesting phenomenon.

"They measure the sun at the location of the spacecraft itself, providing images of the sun, the corona, the light scattered from the solar winds," Garcia said.

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"It's called a hyperbolic escape trajectory," said Scott Messer, program manager for NASA programs at United Launch Alliance. "It actually leaves the gravitational field of the Earth and heads out. It has a couple of gravity assists, a slingshot around Venus, and then it comes back around Earth, and back to Venus."

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The reason for the multiple gravity slingshots is that the Solar Orbiter ultimately has to escape the orbital plane of the planets, which circle the sun's equator.

"It's a highly optimized effort that goes on between the spacecraft team and the rocket team. It's a fairly big optimization problem," Messer said.

The spacecraft will slingshot around Venus several times to reach an orbital plane far different from that of the planets, which orbit the sun around its equator. The slingshot maneuvers are necessary to send the spacecraft around the poles of the sun.

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The closest approach of the Solar Orbiter will be about the distance between the sun and Mercury. In contrast, the Parker Solar Probe launched in 2018 orbits much closer to the sun, dipping into the sun's outer atmosphere.

Even so, Solar Orbiter will become so hot that it will need to tilt its solar power panels away from the sun when at its closest point to avoid overheating, said Ian Walters, project manager for spacecraft manufacturer Airbus.

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Cameras will be stored behind a protective heat shield, with apertures that open only briefly when needed.

The rocket provided 1.2 million pounds of thrust, with the addition of a single solid rocket booster.

The first stage was set to burn for about four minutes, while the second stage would carry the satellite for almost an hour after liftoff until it hit an escape velocity of 27,000 mph.

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