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Solar Orbiter to help researchers study our nearest star

Artist's illustration of the Solar Orbiter. Image: NASA/NASA Goddard

A new mission expected to launch to space from Florida on Sunday will give scientists an unprecedented view of the Sun.

Why it matters: Despite decades of studying our closest star, scientists still can't accurately predict our Sun's behavior — when it will eject solar flares, sprout sunspots or how the solar wind works.

  • The joint NASA/European Space Agency mission, called Solar Orbiter, is designed to help researchers find a way to predict this space weather, which can harm satellites, astronauts and even the electrical grid.

Details: The spacecraft will snap photos of the Sun's poles for the first time, hopefully helping researchers figure out how the star's magnetic field is generated and what drives the solar wind.

  • Solar Orbiter's mission is expected to last about seven years, passing as close as 26 million miles from the star.
  • "Solar Orbiter will give us a comprehensive, full view of the entire Sun and how the Sun is impacting throughout the entire solar system," Holly Gilbert, NASA's project scientist for the mission, said in a video.

What to watch: Solar Orbiter data will complement information gathered by the Parker Solar Probe, which launched in 2018.

  • The Parker probe will be closer to the Sun, allowing it to learn more about the star from close range, while the Solar Orbiter will be farther away giving those data points context.
  • Occasionally, the orbits of the two spacecraft will line up such that both will be able to sample the same stream of solar wind from different positions.

Go deeper: New telescope takes highest-resolution photo of the Sun's surface

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