Most Influential Projects 2020

17 Solar Orbiter

50 MIP 17 Solar Orbiter View of Sun

PMI #MIP2020 | Solar Orbiter

For offering a new view of the sun

While exploring the moon and Mars snags most media attention, two of the biggest space agencies are shooting for a star—betting an up-close look at the sun will help unlock lingering mysteries of the solar system. The European Space Agency and NASA teamed up to launch the Solar Orbiter in February, kicking off a seven-year, US$1.5 billion mission to capture the first high-resolution images of the sun’s top and bottom.

“The poles are particularly important for us to be able to model more accurately,” Holly Gilbert, NASA project scientist for the mission, said on the agency’s site. Among other things, the unprecedented views could better predict solar storms that can disrupt critical infrastructure on Earth, such as power grids, as well as threaten astronauts in space.

On 16 July, ESA published the first images—the closest ever taken—revealing a swirling mass of campfire-like flares. “We didn’t expect such great results so early,” said ESA project scientist Daniel Müller. “These images show that the Solar Orbiter is off to a great start.”

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