Intelligent Energy

The Sun: Up close and personal

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New satellite will get nearer to flaming ball than any man made object ever has. Will deliver 3D images of solar wind leaving Sun's surface. Could help explain solar-induced power outages.

Remember Icarus! Solar Orbiter will get closer to the Sun than any other manmade object has. It will deliver images of solar wind leaving the surface.

Those of you desperate to learn more about how and why solar wind knocks out electricity grids and communications gear, stay tuned. You should start to get more answers in 2017.

That's when the European Space Agency will launch Solar Orbiter, a picture-taking satellite that will travel to within 45 million kilometers (28 million miles) of the Sun - closer than any equipment man has previously hurled at Earth's power plant, and closer than the first planet, Mercury, ESA notes in a press release.

A more distant view: Solar eruptions captured in 2003.

To put that into another perspective: Solar Orbiter will travel 70 percent of the distance from Earth to the Sun. With that sort of proximity, ESA is confident that the satellite will send back images of solar wind as it exits, giving us new insights on how the stuff affects life and contraptions on Earth and elsewhere. Images to date have captured solar wind much further from the sun.

Simply put, solar wind is a stream of charge particles that extends the sun's atmosphere, known as the heliosphere, across Earth, other planets and the solar system.  It can disrupt communication systems and the electrical grid. As the press release states,

"Solar Orbiter will investigate the connections and the coupling between the Sun and the heliosphere, a huge bubble in space created by the solar wind that extends far beyond our Solar System. It is through this wind that solar activity can cause auroras and disrupt satellite-based communication...

To get a close-up view of the Sun and to observe the solar wind before it becomes disrupted, Solar Orbiter will fly to within 45 million kilometres of the Sun, closer than Mercury. It will image the poles for the first time, helping us understand how the Sun generates its magnetic field."

The Sun's magnetic field in turn ties into the charged particles of solar wind. Lucie Green, a solar physicist from the University of London, says in an audio interview embedded in a BBC story that the first ever solar polar shots will be "incredibly important"  because "seeing the polar regions is key to tracing solar activity."

Green enthuses about the mission and the advance it represents over other solar expedition. "Not only will we be able to see the Sun up close, but we'll also be sitting in and sensing the emissions from the Sun very close to the solar surface," she says. "Solar Orbiter's different, because not  only will it take picutres of the sun, but it will be measuring in situ emissions coming from the Sun... Solar orbiter will reveal the sun in 3D really."

ESA has tapped a British company, Astrium UK, to make the €300 million  satellite, which will launch from NASA's Cape Canaveral as early as January  2017 according to Spaceflight Now.

Solar Orbiter won't hold the closeness distinction for long. Spaceflight Now notes that in 2018 NASA will launch Solar Probe Plus,  a craft that will get to within 3.7 million miles of the Sun by 2024. That's practically there. If the journey to the Sun was  New York to San Francisco, Solar Probe Plus would reach somewhere around Sacramento.

Solar Orbiter, by comparison, would stop near Cheyenne, Wyoming along Interstate 80. Still, the views out West can be spectacular.

Images: CGI (top) and Sun both from European Space Agency.

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure