On Sunday, February 9, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are banding together to launch a new mission to study our sun up close: The Solar Orbiter, which will peer at previously unseen areas of the sun to learn about the complex inner life of our star.
The mission will go where no observer has gone before: Over the north and south poles of the sun. Imaging the poles is particularly important for modeling space weather, as this requires an accurate model of the entire magnetic field of the sun. Additionally, the poles are thought to play a role in the cycle of sunspots — dark blotches that appear on the surface of the sun and which come and go in an approximately 11-year cycle. Scientists still have no idea why this 11-year cycle exists, but looking at the magnetic fields of the poles could provide an answer.
Let me start with the sun. Suppose you were to watch the sun (but not look directly at it; that is a bad thing) over the course of a day. Also suppose you were to observe the sun’s motion on different days of the year. Oh, I get it. You’re too busy and too impatient to do this. Well, there is a simple solution. Download and install some type of astronomy software. I recommend Stellarium. It’s free and it works on all the major operating systems. With Stellarium, you can enter a location and a time and it will show you the sky. This way you can play around with the views on different days without having to wait half a year. Instant sky gratification.
Let me show you the sun at different times of the day for my location on both Dec. 21 and June 21. This image might look crazy, but I tried to show all the locations at the same time.
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