An Atlas 5 rocket lifted off at 11:03 p.m. EST Sunday (0403 GMT Monday) with the Solar Orbiter spacecraft. Credit: United Launch Alliance

Under a brilliant moon, a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket flashed to life and vaulted away from Cape Canaveral late Sunday, boosting the European Space Agency’s $1.5 billion Solar Orbiter probe out of Earth’s gravitational grip toward a multi-year voyage around the sun that will give scientists their first glimpse of the star’s poles.

The long-awaited mission marks “the first time that we send a satellite out to take images of the sun’s poles and in addition, getting the first ever data of the polar magnetic field,” said Daniel Mueller, ESA project scientist with the Solar Orbiter mission. “We believe this really holds the keys to unraveling the mysteries of the sun’s (11-year) activity cycle.

“We will also monitor the far side of the sun, which we cannot see from Earth, and combine that with data from satellites and ground-based telescopes to provide a full 3D view of our star. And so the orbiter is really a laboratory, we have a suite of 10 sophisticated instruments that we will (operate) together to track the evolution of eruptions on the sun from the surface out into space, all the way down to Earth.”

The Solar Orbiter mission comes a year and a half after NASA’s Parker Solar Probe was launched, a spacecraft that periodically flies through the sun’s super-heated outer atmosphere, or corona, enduring extreme temperatures that rule out the use of sun-facing cameras.

Artist’s illustration of the Solar Orbiter spacecraft flying near the sun. Credit: ESA/NASA

Instead, Parker’s instruments are focused on studying the sun’s complex electric and magnetic fields, the electrically charged particles making up the supersonic solar wind and the mechanisms that heat the corona to millions of degrees.

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