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Solar Orbiter launches on historic mission to study the sun's poles –



CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The European-built Solar Orbiter spacecraft is officially on its way to the sun. 

The 3,790-lb. (1,800 kilograms) spacecraft lifted off atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket, rising off a pad at Space Launch Complex 41 here at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Sunday (Feb. 9) at 11:03 p.m. EST (0403 GMT on Feb. 10). The veteran launcher flew in a unique configuration featuring a 13-foot-wide (4 meters) fairing and a single solid rocket booster. 

Solar Orbiter separated from the rocket as planned 53 minutes after liftoff. And, a few minutes later, the mission team had established communications with the spacecraft. So this launch, the first of the year for ULA, seemed to go swimmingly.

Related: The Solar Orbiter mission to explore the sun’s poles in photos

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The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket and Solar Orbiter sit on Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) at Cape Canaveral at sunset. (Image credit: United Launch Alliance)
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The European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter stands ready for launch on the pad of Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter stands ready for launch on the pad of Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (Image credit: Amy Thompson/
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The European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter stands ready for launch on the pad of Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter stands ready for launch on the pad of Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (Image credit: Amy Thompson/
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The fairing of the US Atlas V 411 rocket with the European Space Agency's Solar Orbiter spacecraft inside at the Astrotech payload processing facility near Kennedy Space Center in Florida during launch preparations on, on Jan. 21, 2020.

The fairing of the US Atlas V 411 rocket with the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter spacecraft inside at the Astrotech payload processing facility near Kennedy Space Center in Florida during launch preparations on, on Jan. 21, 2020. (Image credit: S. Corvaja/ESA)
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The European Space Agency's Solar Orbiter undergoes a solar array deployment test at the IABG facilities in Ottobrunn, Germany on March 21, 2019. The solar panels are suspended from above to simulate the weightlessness of space.

The European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter undergoes a solar array deployment test at the IABG facilities in Ottobrunn, Germany on March 21, 2019. The solar panels are suspended from above to simulate the weightlessness of space. (Image credit: S. Corvaja/ESA)
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he fairing of the US Atlas V 411 rocket with the European Space Agency's Solar Orbiter spacecraft inside at the Astrotech payload processing facility near Kennedy Space Center in Florida during launch preparations, on Jan. 21, 2020.

he fairing of the US Atlas V 411 rocket with the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter spacecraft inside at the Astrotech payload processing facility near Kennedy Space Center in Florida during launch preparations, on Jan. 21, 2020. (Image credit: S. Corvaja/ESA)

Solar Orbiter is a collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA. The mission is expected to return unprecedented data and images, as well as our first views of the sun’s polar regions, and the team of people behind it are thrilled. 

“Whenever you launch something, it’s incredibly exciting,” Günther Hasinger, ESA’s director of science, told “The biggest relief comes when you see the light from the rocket and then when the sounds waves hit you.” 

“This mission is such a treasure and important to science, we all want it to go well,” he added. 

The European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter will take the first-ever direct images of the sun’s poles. (Image credit: Spacecraft: ESA/ATG medialab; Sun: NASA/SDO/P. Testa (CfA))

Scientists first proposed this mission over two decades ago, in 1999. ESA officials originally planned for the mission to launch sometime between 2008 and 2013. However, technical difficulties and some mission reshuffling ultimately delayed the launch to 2020. 

“The thermal protection system for the spacecraft has been one [of a few] challenges,” said César García, Solar Orbiter project manager at ESA.

Over the years, technology developments have enabled the team to better protect the spacecraft and its suite of ultra-sensitive instruments. To stay cool, the craft has a 324-lb. (150 kg) heat shield, which is built to withstand temperatures up to 970 degrees Fahrenheit (520 degrees Celsius), Hasing said.

“Solar Orbiter will go into this region that is about as hot as a pizza oven,” he said. “It has a very intricate heat shield that is keeping it safe from sun, with these little peep holes that open when we want to look at the sun, but then close because the instruments are so sensitive.” 

The heat shield resembles a sandwich, made up of many layers of titanium foil. And that foil (along with parts of the spacecraft) is coated with a special material called SolarBlack that was created for Solar Orbiter. Made of calcium phosphate (the same material as human bone), the coating has also been used to help prosthetics bond with human bone, reducing the chance of rejection. 

The bone-based coating, which covers a large portion of the spacecraft, has stable thermal properties, is electrically conductive and will not slough off over the course of the mission. García said that white is a typical color choice for spacecraft coatings because it reflects the sun’s rays incredibly well. Unfortunately, it has a major disadvantage: the white coloring will darken over time as it’s exposed to ultraviolet radiation. This significantly changes the thermal properties of the spacecraft and can adversely affect its instruments. 

The team unofficially dubbed Solar Orbiter “Blackbird” as a nod to its special thermal protection system. 

Another challenge was to ensure that the onboard instruments do not interfere with magnetic field measurements the spacecraft will take. Cleanliness is yet another challenge, according to García. 

He told that the instruments are sensitive to molecular contamination, and that any type of residue, dust particles or stray hair could spell disaster for the science expected from these instruments. García also explained that the spacecraft is also sensitive to water vapor. In fact, the craft’s sensitive telescopes are not going to turn on for a while so that any residual water vapor that formed during launch will evaporate. 

During a prelaunch news briefing on Friday (Feb. 7), García said that the spacecraft was cleaner than it was required to be for the instruments to perform as expected. “This is the cleanest spacecraft ever launched,” he told 

This infographic depicts Solar Orbiter’s suite of 10 science instruments that will study the sun. There are two types: in situ and remote sensing. The in situ instruments measure the conditions around the spacecraft itself. The remote-sensing instruments measure what is happening at large distances away.  (Image credit: S. Poletti/ESA)

ESA is leading the Solar Orbiter mission, with NASA paying for the launch vehicle and one of the 10 instruments on board. NASA’s total monetary contribution to the mission is roughly $386 million, with ESA contributing $877 million out of a grand total cost of around $1.5 billion. (García told that the participating research institutions and universities were not required to disclose how much each of the individual instruments cost.)

Solar Orbiter was designed to study the sun up close. Its main goal is to answer the question: How does the sun create and control the heliosphere — the huge protective bubble that surrounds our solar system — and why does that bubble change over time?

Scientists believe the key to answering that question lies in the sun’s polar regions. Solar Orbiter will be the first spacecraft to image this enigmatic region. “We believe this area holds the keys to unraveling the mysteries of the sun’s activity cycle,” Daniel Müller, ESA’s Solar Orbiter project scientist, told 

“The sun’s magnetic field causes all the effects we see,” he added. Solar Orbiter will connect what’s going on at the sun with what’s happening out in the heliosphere in unprecedented detail, mission team members have said. 

The probe’s measurements will help establish a cause-and-effect relationship to what happens on the sun and what we observe in the near-Earth environment, Sam Solanki, director of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany, told

“It’s a wonderful compliment to the Parker Solar Probe, which takes in-situ measures but cannot see the whole picture,” Solanki said, referring to a record-breaking NASA probe that launched in August 2018.

Gravity assist maneuvers at Earth and Venus will enable the Solar Orbiter spacecraft to change inclination to observe the sun from different perspectives. During the initial cruise phase, which lasts until November 2021, Solar Orbiter will perform two gravity-assist maneuvers around Venus and one around Earth to alter the spacecraft’s trajectory, guiding it towards the innermost regions of the solar system. The first close solar pass will take place in 2022 at around a third of Earth’s distance from the sun.  (Image credit: S. Poletti/ESA)

The first good look at the sun’s poles won’t come until 2025, when Solar Orbiter will reach a trajectory of 17 degrees above the ecliptic plane — where the Earth and the rest of the planets orbit. The spacecraft will achieve this vantage point via gravity-assist flybys of Venus, which will boost its inclination. 

Solar Orbiter’s steepest viewpoint, 33 degrees above the ecliptic, won’t come until 2029, when the spacecraft will be well into an expected extended mission (which would start in December 2026). That angle will provide the best images of the sun’s polar regions, although throughout the mission, the spacecraft will beam back unprecedented data about these never-before-seen regions. 

But for now, Solar Orbiter will cruise toward the sun, completing a few passes of Venus on its way to study our star up close. Preliminary science measurements are expected as early as May, with full science operations commencing in November 2021 when the craft’s imagers come online. 

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 12:10 a.m. EST on Feb. 10 with news of spacecraft separation and the establishment of communications with Solar Orbiter.

Follow Amy Thompson on Twitter @astrogingersnap. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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An award-winning photographer tells you how to take pictures of the night sky –



Dave Brosha is a professional photographer who, over the last 15 years, has taken highly stunning pictures of the Canadian wilderness.

It was when he was living in Yellowknife — before he pursued photography full time — that he first became interested in pointing his lens toward the skies.

“Yellowknife is known as one of the best areas on the planet for displays of the aurora borealis,” he said. “I found myself outside many, many nights under the stars.”

Since then Brosha has been short-listed multiple times for the Astronomy Photography of the Year Awards, and in 2010 he was the first runner-up in the category of land and space.

Now that he’s based in P.E.I., he splits his time between doing commercial assignments and teaching photography to people across Canada and in other parts of the world. 

Every summer, he holds a workshop on the Island with his colleague, Paul Zizka, on sunset and nighttime photography that features astrophotography, the art of capturing a picture of an object in space.

“Between Worlds.” Self-portrait photographed on the edge of a glacier in Iceland. ISO 3200, f/2.5, 30-seconds. (Dave Brosha/Dave Brosha Photography)

“There’s people that are more into deep-space photography, actually photographing the galaxies and close-ups of planets and stars and stuff like that,” Brosha said. “But to me, astrophotography is really just going out into the world once the light disappears and just exploring the beauty of that.”

Dave Brosha. (Amy Stackhouse)

Though his workshop just ended, Brosha took some time to tell CBC what beginners need to know to get into this hobby, which he says at its most barebones doesn’t require more than a fairly basic DSLR camera or a good smartphone — not even a fancy location.

“My favourite nighttime photographs have always just kind of come in my own backyard. I don’t have to drive anywhere, and it’s right there,” he said. 

“Whether exploring star trails or aurora borealis or Milky Way photographs, or just being able to go outside in your own backyard, it’s [all] pretty wonderful. 

“It helps to live in the countryside.”

Switching to manual

All good nighttime photographers — and all good photographers in general — must have a firm grasp on the concept of exposure. That’s the amount of light that’s allowed to reach the camera sensor. A picture that’s underexposed is one that looks too dark.

“Apparitions.” Photographed on a still night at low tide at Hopewell Rocks, New Brunswick. (Dave Brosha/Dave Brosha Photography)

“You have to understand the principles of capturing very small amounts of light over a longer time. So you have to know how to be able to operate your camera to capture those miniscule bits of light,” Brosha said. “It really forces you to slow down and think.”

For starters, that means ditching your camera’s auto settings. 

“You can’t really shoot night photography effectively in just auto mode. You have to learn the exposure triangle,” he said. “It takes a little bit of work, for sure. But the rewards are tremendous.”

Keep it steady

“World Goes Round”. The Old Man of Storr in the Isle of Skye, Scotland. ISO 4000, f/2.8, timelapse stitch of 45 30-second images. (Dave Brosha/Dave Brosha Photography)

The longer the camera’s shutter remains open, the larger the amount of light the camera takes in. As such, in a night photography environment, it’s common to see shutter speeds of over 20 to 30 seconds. 

But a slow shutter speed means the camera is very sensitive to any motion.

That’s great if you’re trying to capture the movement of celestial bodies such as when taking a “star trail” photograph, but even a slight movement could lead to blurry images.

Brosha said that for long exposures, it’s important to keep your camera steady. That means a good tripod is almost a must.

“If all else fails, I’ve improvised by propping my camera up on a solid surface,” Brosha said. “Using a timer on your camera rather than pressing your shutter also helps reduce camera shake.”

Check your ISO

Cranking up the ISO allows for more light to get in the camera at the expense of quality.

That could compensate for a faster shutter speed when capturing a moving object, such as when trying to capture the outlines of bright northern lights.

And having both a slow shutter speed and a high ISO could lead to highly detailed images of the night sky, such as this self-portrait with the Milky Way as a backdrop. It was taken with a 3200-ISO, and a 30-second shutter speed.

“Shine Your Light.” Self-portrait taken in The Pinnacles in Western Australia. ISO 3200, f/2.8, 30 seconds. (Dave Brosha/Dave Brosha Photography)

“When you go out there, and you even just let your eyes adjust for the dark, and you’re out there an hour, it’s remarkable how much more you see. The camera can take that even further,” Brosha said. “[It] picks up so much more.”

Perfect conditions

Brosha said that other than avoiding pouring rain, there are no real “ideal” conditions as to when to venture out, and that all types of weather can lead to interesting pictures.

“Cloudy? Reflected light pollution can actually look interesting in a long exposure. Full moon? Not the best conditions for shooting the Milky Way, but great conditions for being able to see your foregrounds,” he said.

“Where The Wild Winds Blow.” Portrait of Maggie Hood, Iceland. ISO 3200, f/2.2, 2.5-seconds. The subject was lit by an off-camera strobe. (Dave Brosha/Dave Brosha Photography)

A pitch-black night is a prime setting for taking pictures of stars. And if you’re looking to take a picture of the northern lights, you better look, well, north.

“It’s generally easier to photograph on the North Shore, when the aurora borealis is predicted. So that’s what I would probably recommend to people,” Brosha said.

Go out there and shoot

“Night Falls.” Alexandra Falls in the Northwest Territories. ISO 1600, f/7.1, 25-second exposure. (Dave Brosha/Dave Brosha Photography)

Brosha said that astrophotography may look intimidating on the surface, but that it’s not as complicated as most people might think. 

“All you have to grasp to begin is the concept of long exposure. And that usually I find for people is something that they can get the hang of pretty quickly. It just takes a little bit of practice,” he said.

Once you got that nailed down, Brosha said you can get really creative with it. And the setting allows for that.

“Every time you turn on a light, like a flashlight, your eyes kind of lose the adjustment to the nighttime that you’ve gained,” he said. 

“So you really try to function with as little light as possible. And so everything becomes slower and more deliberate.”

Plus, Brosha said, it’s a fine excuse to go outdoors.

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It's once again time for the Perseids, one of the best meteor showers of the year – CBC News



Each August, Earth plows through a thick trail of debris left over from a passing comet. The result: A spectacular night of meteors lighting up the sky.

One of the best and most anticipated meteor showers of the year is the Perseids, which takes place from mid-July to the end of August. But peak viewing — where you’ll get a chance to see the most meteors — falls on the night of Aug. 12-13 this year, according to the International Meteor Organization. 

That’s when Earth moves through the thickest part of the debris left over from comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, with tiny pieces of particles burning up in our atmosphere at 59 km/s.

Try this interactive map showing how Earth passes through the meteor shower:

Swift-Tuttle, which was first discovered in 1862 independently by both Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle, makes an orbit of the sun every 133 years. The last time it was in our solar system was in 1992. Still, from all those trips around the sun, it’s left behind plenty of debris. 

Some of this debris can be bigger than the normal grain-like particles and can create beautiful bolides, or bright fireballs that light up the sky.

How to see the meteors

Though the Perseids rarely disappoint, there is one thing to contend with this year that may hamper your viewing delight: the full moon.

With the moon lighting up the sky, that means that only the brightest of meteors will be visible. Fortunately, many Perseids tend to be quite bright anyway. 

The Perseids are given their name for the constellation — Perseus. This is the point in the sky from which they seem to appear, called the radiant.

This map shows the radiant of the Perseids, which get their name name from the nearby constellation Perseus. The radiant is the point in the sky from which the meteors seem to appear. (American Meteor Society)

While some people like to look in the direction of the constellation, which rises in the northeast, it limits the number of meteors that can be seen, since they will have shorter tails. To see longer meteors (ie., with long tails), you don’t need to look directly up, but at more of an angle.

And the best thing about meteor showers is that you don’t need a telescope or binoculars, just your own eyes.

You can also keep an eye out for “earthgrazers,” meteors that skim Earth’s atmosphere and, as a result, leave a long trail behind them.

These are best viewed early in the night, when the sky is dark and the radiant is low in the east. They will be moving roughly from north to south.

To increase your chances of catching some bright meteors, you could head out ahead of the peak night of Aug. 12, or even in the days after, when the moon won’t be entirely full. Try to keep the moon behind you when stargazing to block out its glare. 

Helpful hints

Another hot tip is to try to lie down on a blanket or even on a beach lounge chair, otherwise your neck will get tired and ache from trying to look up. 

Also, put away those phones as your eyes will need to become accustomed to the dark, something that can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. And remember, the more stars you can see, the more faint meteors you will catch, so try to get to as dark a location as you can, away from city lights.

Patience is your friend, so try not to give up if you haven’t seen any meteors within a few minutes. Under ideal conditions, the Perseids can produce more than 100 meteors an hour, but don’t expect to see that many. 

At this time of year, you can also catch a couple of planets: Jupiter will be low in the east and hard to miss, and Saturn will lie in the southeast.

People can also use free apps like StarWalk or SkyView (they have a night mode that displays in red in order to preserve your night vision) that allow you to hold your phone up to the sky to identify constellations, planets and more.

There’s always something to look at in the night sky, even if meteors aren’t providing a show.

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Watch OSIRIS-REx's Complex Orbital Path Around Bennu in This Cool Animation – Universe Today



The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft conducted a two-year reconnaissance and sample collection at the asteroid Bennu, providing crucial data about the 500-meter-wide potentially hazardous rubble pile/space rock. When OSIRIS-REx arrived on Dec. 3, 2018, it needed some tricky navigation and precise maneuvers to make the mission work.

Experts at NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio created an amazing visualization of the path the spacecraft took during its investigations. A short film called “A Web Around Asteroid Bennu” highlights the complexity of the mission, and the film is being shown at the SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, a festival honoring standout works of computer animated storytelling.

Other films in the festival include Disney’s “Encanto” and Warner Brothers’ “The Batman.”

[embedded content]

Data visualizer Kel Elkins compiled the data for the film, which shows the web-like flight path for OSIRIS-REx, as well as the touch-and-go, or TAG, maneuver to collect the sample from the asteroid’s surface.

“I started working with the trajectory data in 2015,” Elkins said. “And when you first see an image of all the different maneuvers it looks like a rat’s nest. But it was really exciting to see these complicated maneuvers in 3D space.”

The video runs about four minutes in total, showing the flight path around Bennu from beginning to end in a single, continuous shot.

Screenshot from the visualization of OSIRIS-REx’s orbital path.

“From a trajectory and navigation perspective, the team really did things that have never been done before in planetary exploration,” said Mike Moreau, deputy project manager for OSIRIS-REx at NASA Goddard. “We flew the spacecraft closer to this object than any spacecraft has ever been flown before; we did maneuvers that were centimeters per second, or millimeters per second, in order to get the spacecraft exactly where it needed to be and to change its orbit.”

Taking their data visualization to the next level, Elkins and colleagues plan to release a 360-degree version of “A Web Around Asteroid Bennu” that wraps the video around the viewer, for an interactive experience on VR headsets, mobile devices, and online.

“As amazing as it is to see the trajectory in front of you in the original format, there’s something about putting the viewer in the middle of it and letting them look around,” Elkins said. “You’re in space and OSIRIS-REx is flying around you. We’re really excited to be able to publish this additional 360-degree view.”

This illustration shows the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft departing asteroid Bennu to begin its two-year journey back to Earth. Credits: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

OSIRIS-REx is currently on its way back towards Earth, and in September 2023, will drop off a sample in the Utah desert. Once the sample is retrieved, the spacecraft has been given a new mission, and it will be heading to one of the most infamous asteroids of them all, the potentially hazardous asteroid Apophis for an 18 month study. The mission will be renamed OSIRIS-APEX, which is short for OSIRIS-Apophis Explorer.

Source: NASA

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