Europe Plots Mission to the Sun

Billion-euro probe to launch in 2017

By Greg Wilson
|  Wednesday, Oct 5, 2011  |  Updated 8:18 AM PDT
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European Space Agency

An artist's impression of what Europe's sun probe will look like.

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Europe's collective space agency is planning an ambitious space mission that would send a satellite nearly three-quarters of the way to the Sun.

The Solar Orbiter, which would launch in 2017, would operate just 25 million miles from the Sun, far closer than any spacecraft ever sent from Earth. The mission was green-lighted by the European Space Agency member states on Tuesday, according to the BBC.

"I'm really looking forward to Solar Orbiter, which will become the reference for solar physics in the years to come," Alvaro Gimenez, ESA's director of science, told the BBC.

NASA will assist in the mission, providing instruments for the probe and the rocket that will propel it toward our star, which is about 93 million miles away from Earth.

The idea for the billion-euro Solar Orbiter has kicked around since the 1990s. Scientists hope it will help acquire measurements of the energetic particles and magnetic fields found near the Sun. It will move in an elliptical orbit that will follow the star's rotation, allowing it to observe specific areas for much longer than currently possible.

The spacecraft will have a shield to protect it against temperatures higher than 500 degrees and its its instruments will need to peek through small slots to minimize heat exposure.

"Solar Orbiter is not so much about taking high-resolution pictures of the Sun, although we'll get those; it's about getting close and joining up what happens on the Sun with what happens in space," said Tim Horbury, one of the project's lead scientists.

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