China launches solar observation satellite
Will work from Earth orbit, as opposed to the Sun-grazing paths of US and EU solar probes
China has placed a solar observation satellite in orbit, to conduct a four-year mission staring at Sol to understand its secrets.
The Advanced Space-based Solar Observatory, nicknamed Kuafu-1, launched on Sunday morning atop a Long March 2D rocket from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Inner Mongolia. The satellite made it to synchronous orbit 720 kilometers (about 450 miles) above Earth's surface, where it will permanently face the Sun – except for a few minutes a day between May and August.
"ASO-S is capable of probing the Sun 24 hours daily for most of the year," Gan Weiqun, the satellite's principal scientist, told state-sponsored media. "Its longest daily time-out is no more than 18 minutes when briefly running through the shadow of Earth each day from May to August."
Kuafu-1 is expected to operate for up to four years, sending 500GB of data daily to ground stations in Sanya, Kashgar, and Beijing as it studies the Sun's magnetic field, solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). During periods of solar eruption, the satellite can send pictures as frequently as every second.
From the ground stations, the data gets sent in packages to a 2,048-core computer at Purple Mountain Observatory. Chinese authorities have offered no details on the machine other than its core count.
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The 888kg (1957.7 pound) satellite is equipped with a Full-disk MagnetoGraph (FMG), Lyman-alpha Solar Telescope (LST) and Hard X-ray Imager (HXI). The FMG measures the vector magnetic field, the LST measures the light near the corona emitted from the Sun's full disk in the ultraviolet and visible light wavelengths – known as the Lyman-alpha bandwidth – and the HXI detects high-energy radiation during solar flares.
Work on the $140 million mission began in 2012. China has hustled to get the observatory into position before 2025, the expected peak of activity in the current 11-year solar cycle.
China's first solar observatory joins NASA's Parker Solar Probe and the European Space Agency's Solar Orbiter already in orbit.
The ESA’s solar orbiter recently revealed how solar switchbacks – the phenomena that cause the Sun's magnetic field to flip – are formed.
The Parker solar probe was the first spacecraft to literally touch the Sun. Its mission goals are to trace the flow of energy that heats the corona and accelerates solar wind, learn about magnetic fields and determine what gets energetic particles moving.
Both Parker and the ESA's effort will get a lot closer to Sol than Kuafu-1. Parker will pass within just seven million kilometers (4.4 million miles) of Sol and Europe's craft will close to within 30 million klicks (18.6 million miles).
It may seem a bit excessive to have to go into space to study the Sun – it is, after all, right there. You can see it with the naked eye (but seriously, don't). Studying the star from a distance – particularly from Earth – yields limited results because the atmosphere absorbs and dampens solar emissions. Getting outside the atmosphere is like taking the blinders off and seeing the Sun in a whole new light. ®