UAH research team prepares for mission to the sun's atmosphere

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Students and researchers at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) are part of a team that’s on the cutting edge of some of the most exciting science being done in the world today.

UAH will have a major role in exploring and analyzing data that will be sent back to Earth following the launch of the European Space Agency (ESA) Solar Orbiter, a mission that will fly over the sun’s poles to measure particles in the sun’s atmosphere.

Solar Orbiter is scheduled to launch Feb. 7 from Cape Canaveral aboard an Atlas V 411 rocket.

When the spacecraft arrives at the sun’s atmosphere in about a year, the research team at UAH will collect and analyze the information it sends back.

“We then take that data and try to relate it to theoretical models,” explained Dr. Gary Zank, Director of the UAH Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research and the Aerojet Rocketdyne chair of the Department of Space Science. “The idea is to try to answer this question that we’ve not understood for 50 to 60 years.”

The golden question: Why is the sun’s atmosphere hotter than the sun’s surface?

“It’s completely the opposite of the atmosphere of the earth, which cools as you go higher and higher,” Zank said.

Solar Orbiter will collect solar wind data on its way to the sun’s atmosphere and send it back as soon as a few weeks after launch. It’s expected to reach its destination in about a year. The spacecraft and its 10 instruments will make a close approach to the sun every five months.

“This truly is the golden age for solar physics,” Zank said. “I think in four or five years we may have a completely different understanding of how the surface and how the atmosphere of the sun works.”

You can watch the launch live on NASA TV.

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