Solar Orbiter to capture first images of Sun's north, south poles

The spacecraft is set to come closer to the star than any other Sun-facing camera before it.

Solar Orbiter to capture first images of Sun's north, south poles
ESA
  • Solar Orbiter is a joint project between NASA and the European Space Agency.
  • The mission aims to study the heliosphere, and to uncover information about the Sun's internal structure, magnetic field, and activity cycle.
  • Solar Orbiter is set to ascend the ecliptic plane by the end of 2021, when it will begin imaging the Sun.


The Solar Orbiter is set to launch Monday on its mission to study the Sun and photograph its north and south poles for the first time.

The mission is a joint project between NASA and the European Space Agency that's been nearly two decades in the making. Its primary goal is to help scientists better understand how the Sun creates and controls the heliosphere, which is the giant bubble-like region of space, formed by the solar wind, that protects our solar system from interstellar radiation. The mission also aims to study the Sun's 11-year activity cycle, magnetic field and internal structure.

Solar Orbiter will orbit the Sun concurrently NASA's Parker Solar Probe, which launched 18 months ago and has flown within 4 million miles of the star. The new spacecraft won't get that close, but it will get a look at the Sun from a unique vantage point: above the ecliptic plane. From there, the orbiter will be able to photograph the star's north and south poles.

ESA

"Up until Solar Orbiter, all solar imaging instruments have been within the ecliptic plane or very close to it," Russell Howard, space scientist at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C. and principal investigator for one of Solar Orbiter's ten instruments, told NASA. "Now, we'll be able to look down on the Sun from above."

Scientists aren't quite sure what they'll see.

"There's no rational reasons why the poles shouldn't be different," Mark McCaughrean, senior advisor for science & exploration at ESA, told The Guardian. "Be prepared for surprises."

Studying the Sun from outside the ecliptic plane won't only yield historic images of the star, but it'll also hopefully help scientists better understand and predict solar activity.

"The poles are particularly important for us to be able to model more accurately," said Holly Gilbert, NASA project scientist for the mission at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "For forecasting space weather events, we need a pretty accurate model of the global magnetic field of the Sun."

To ascend the ecliptic plane by the end of 2021, the Solar Orbiter will fly by Earth and Venus several times, using the two planets' gravity to slingshot itself into an elliptical orbit. The only other spacecraft to travel outside the ecliptic plane was Ulysses, launched in 1990. But Ulysses had no camera. It carried only situ instruments, which measure the environment immediately around the spacecraft.

Solar Orbiter is equipped with 10 instruments: four situ and six remote-sensing tools that can "see" the Sun from afar. (Because these instruments are extremely sensitive, the orbiter was stored in an ultra-clean room before launch; anyone who came near it was required to wear booties and a "bunny suit" to prevent contamination.) The spacecraft aims to travel closer to the star than any other Sun-facing camera. That requires surviving extreme temperatures — both hot and cold.

Solar surface

NSO/AURA/NSF

"Although Solar Orbiter goes quite close to the Sun, it also goes quite far away," Anne Pacros, the payload manager at the European Space Agency's, or ESA's, European Space Research and Technology Centre in the Netherlands, told NASA. "We have to survive both high heat and extreme cold."

To protect its instruments as it comes within 26 million miles of the Sun, Solar Orbiter is equipped with a 324-pound heat shield that can withstand temperatures up to 970 degrees Fahrenheit, which is about one-tenth as hot as the solar surface.

"Five of the remote-sensing instruments look at the Sun through peepholes in that heat shield; one observes the solar wind out to the side," NASA wrote.

Solar Orbiter will work in tandem with the Parker probe.

"As Parker samples solar particles up close, Solar Orbiter will capture imagery from farther away, contextualizing the observations," NASA wrote. "The two spacecraft will also occasionally align to measure the same magnetic field lines or streams of solar wind at different times."

Solar Orbiter is scheduled to turn on its telescopes in November 2021.

"It will capture the imagination like science fiction does and inspire the next generation of scientists and space explorers," Yannis Zouganelis, ESA's deputy project scientist for Solar Orbiter, told The Guardian.

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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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