The Airbus-built Solar Orbiter spacecraft has been closed up inside the payload fairing of a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket in preparation for liftoff from Cape Canaveral in February on a joint mission between the European Space Agency and NASA.
Technicians inside the Astrotech payload processing facility encapsulated the Solar Orbiter spacecraft — designed with thermal shielding to protect against the heat of the sun — inside the Atlas 5’s payload fairing Jan. 20. The spacecraft inside the Atlas 5 rocket’s 4-meter-diameter (13.1-foot) aerodynamic nose shroud will soon travel to ULA’s Vertical Integration Facility, where crane will hoist the payload package atop the launcher.
Valued at nearly $1.7 billion, the Solar Orbiter mission will travel closer to the sun than Mercury, where it will join NASA’s Parker Solar Probe for tandem observations of the solar wind and giant solar eruptions that can affect communications and electrical grids on Earth, plus satellite operations.
Scientists hope the dual missions will help sort out what drives the solar wind. Data from the probes may eventually help scientists better predict solar storms and their effects Earth.
Solar Orbiter’s primary launch period opens Feb. 5 and extends through Feb. 23. The 19 daily launch opportunities in February will allow the spacecraft to fly by Venus in December, beginning a series of planetary encounters that will use gravity to slingshot Solar Orbiter closer to the sun.
Once in its initial science orbit at the end of 2021, Solar Orbiter will begin viewing the sun’s poles for the first time. If the mission is extended, further flybys with Venus will tilt the spacecraft’s orbit around the sun to an angle as high as 33 degrees, enabling better imagery of the polar regions.
More photos can been seen below of the Solar Orbiter spacecraft’s encapsulation inside the Atlas 5 payload fairing.
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