India is set to launch its first solar observation mission days after the country made history by becoming the first to land near the moon’s south pole.
Aditya-L1 is scheduled to lift off from the Sriharikota launch pad at 11:50 a.m. IST (06:20 a.m. GMT) on Saturday.
It will be 1.5 million km (932,000 miles) from Earth – 1% of the Earth-Sun distance.
The Indian Space Agency reports that it will take four months to cover this distance.
India’s first space mission to explore the largest object in the solar system is named after Surya, the Hindu sun god who is also known as Aditya.
And L1 stands for Lagrange Point 1 – the exact spot between the Sun and the Earth where the Indian spacecraft will be stationed.
According to the European Space Agency, the Lagrange point is where the gravitational forces of two large objects – such as the Sun and Earth – cancel each other out, allowing a spacecraft to “hover”.
Once Aditya-L1 reaches this ‘parking spot’, it will be able to orbit the Sun at the same speed as Earth. It also means that the satellite will need very little fuel to operate.
The Indian Space Research Agency (Isro) says that after liftoff, the spacecraft will circle the Earth several times before heading towards L1.
From this vantage point, Aditya-L1 will be able to continuously observe the Sun – even when it is hidden, as during an eclipse – and conduct scientific research.
The Indian Space Research Agency (Isro) has not said how much the mission will cost, but Indian press reports say it will cost 3.78 billion rupees ($46 million; £36 million).
Isro says the orbiter is carrying seven science instruments that will observe and study the solar corona (the outermost layer); the photosphere (the surface of the Sun or the part we see from Earth) and the chromosphere (the thin layer of plasma that lies between the photosphere and the corona).
The research will help scientists understand solar activity, such as the solar wind and solar flares, and their effects on Earth’s weather and near-space weather in real time.
Former Isro scientist Milswamy Annadurai says the Sun is constantly influencing Earth’s weather through radiation, heat and the flow of particles and magnetic fields. At the same time, he says, it also affects space weather.
“Space weather plays a role in the efficiency of the functioning of satellites. Solar winds or storms can affect satellite electronics and even knock out power grids. But there are gaps in our knowledge of space weather,” Mr Annadurai told the BBC.
India has more than 50 satellites in space and they provide many important services to the country, including communication channels, weather data, and helping to predict pest infestations, droughts, and impending disasters. According to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), about 10,290 satellites remain in Earth orbit, with nearly 7,800 of them currently operational.
Aditya, says Mr. Annadurai, will help us better understand and even warn us about the star on which our lives depend.
“Knowing the activity of the Sun, such as the solar wind or a solar eruption several days in advance, will help us move our satellites away from danger. This will help increase the longevity of our satellites in space.”
The mission, he adds, will primarily help improve our scientific understanding of the Sun, the 4.5 billion star that holds our Solar System together.
India’s solar mission comes just days after the country successfully landed the world’s first probe near the moon’s south pole.
At the same time, India became only the fourth country in the world to make a soft landing on the moon, after the United States, the former Soviet Union and China.
If Aditya-L1 is successful, India will join a select group of countries already studying the Sun.
Japan was the first to launch a mission to the Sun in 1981 to study solar flares, and the US space agency NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have been observing the Sun since the 1990s.
In February 2020, NASA and ESA jointly launched a Solar Orbiter is studying the Sun from a close distance and collecting data that scientists say will help understand what drives its dynamic behavior.
And in 2021, NASA’s newest spacecraft Parker Solar Probe made history becoming the first to fly through the crownthe outer atmosphere of the Sun.
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