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Solar probe embarks on unprecedented mission to map sun's polar regions

By Joey Roulette
The Solar Orbiter spacecraft, built for NASA and the European Space Agency, lifts off from pad 41 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket as the full moon is seen above at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral

By Joey Roulette

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A new probe built by NASA and the European Space Agency set off on a blazing hot journey to the sun on Sunday to take the first close-up look at the star's polar regions, a mission expected to yield insight into how solar radiant energy affects Earth.

The Solar Orbiter spacecraft lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 11:03 p.m. ET (0403 GMT Monday), kicking off a 10-year voyage.

"This was picture perfect. And suddenly you really felt you are connected to the rest of the solar system," Daniel Mueller, a scientist for ESA who worked on the mission, said after lift-off.

The minivan-sized spacecraft will deploy solar panels and antennas before carrying on toward the sun, a trek assisted by the gravitational forces of Earth and Venus. It eventually will reach as close as 26 million miles from the sun's surface, or about 72 percent of the distance between the star and Earth.

"I have been in solar physics for many years; I just never thought I would actually witness something come to fruition like this and actually launch. It's amazing," said Holly Gilbert of NASA.

Solar Orbiter's primary mission of examining the sun's polar regions will help researchers understand the origins of solar wind, a soup of charged particles highly concentrated at the two poles, which blast through our solar system, affecting satellites and electronics on Earth.

The mission is also expected to glean insight into how astronauts can be protected from radiation in space, which can damage DNA.

Solar Orbiter carries 10 instruments packed behind a massive 324-pound (147 kg) heat shield, three of which will peer through tiny windows to survey how the sun's surface changes over time.


(Reporting by Joey Roulette in Washington and Ismail Shakil in Bengaluru; Editing by Daniel Wallis)