Home News Science&Tech Solar Orbiter to keep an eye on our fierce star

Solar Orbiter to keep an eye on our fierce star

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Sun bursts can disrupt radio signals, make navigation instruments more unreliable, or even shut down entire power plants. To better understand that space weather, a probe from the European space agency ESA has been heading for the sun since last night: Solar Orbiter. The probe was launched early this morning from Florida.

It doesn’t happen often that a solar storm really causes great damage. “That really requires the perfect storm,” says the Flemish Anik de Groof, ESA scientist involved in the mission.

“The plasma cloud must go exactly towards the Earth, the polarity in the cloud must be opposite to the earth’s magnetic field and there are still some criteria, so that does not happen so often fortunately.”

In 1989, the entire Canadian province of Québec was in the dark for twelve hours in such a storm. And in 1859 the earth was hit by an even bigger storm of charged particles.

“So large that flames came from the telegraph devices,” De Groof knows. “At that time, that was already a phenomenon. Now we are much more dependent on often very sensitive equipment. The effect of such a large solar storm would now be much greater.”

That is why it is important to better understand the consequences of solar eruptions. You want to know if they will influence the earth and how and when, says De Groof.

“Just like in the normal weather forecast. Solar Orbiter has to give us new insights so that we can predict space weather much better.”

There is already a space weather report. But there are still aspects that are very difficult to predict. “Especially what happens between the moment you see such a plasma cloud leaving the sun and the moment it arrives at the earth, how the solar wind changes.”

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