Solar Orbiter

I have a pretty high quality camera and have invested a bit of money in lenses and other equipment to help me make photographs. It is a hobby that demands a certain investment of time and I don’t always give it the time that is needed, but one that I hope to pursue with more energy after I have completed this phase of my working life. Ever since I studied photography with Archie Lieberman in Chicago in the 1970’s, I have had an understanding and appreciation of the work of photographers. I pay attention to the cameras and gear used by others to get their images.

The images of the earth and moon that are no so famous, taken from Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules in the early phases of the US space program were all film images, taken with single lens reflex cameras. The film was later processed and prints were made. In those days we were all using film cameras. The digital revolution wasn’t immediately embraced by professional photographers. Early digital cameras lacked the detail and focus that could be achieved with film. However, those issues were soon resolved and we now have incredible quality in the digital images that we are able to make.

Today is launch day for some very sophisticated cameras aboard Solar Orbiter, a European Space Agency-led mission. The mission is expected to produce images of the son that have never before been seen, including images of both poles of the star. The craft will get the closest pictures ever of the sun.

It would be a mistake, however, to think of the mission solely in terms of the pictures that we hope to see. The craft has many sophisticated instruments designed to measure the behavior of the Sun. In addition to looking at the Sun, instruments will be measuring solar wind.

All previous solar missions have looked at the sun from a distance while the sun rotates beneath the craft. Solar orbiter will be able to stay over a particular point of the sun, rotating with it so that it can observe a specific area.

Because of the intense heat of the sun Solar Orbiter will actually not be as close to the surface of the sun as other spacecraft, previously launched. Instead, it will deploy an array of telescopes to provide images from a distance that allows the craft to continue to function and track the movement of the sun. Even at that distance the craft will need to have serious heat shields. It is expected to be exposed to temperatures in excess of 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. The lenses of the instruments are surrounded by sophisticated heat shields to allow the equipment to continue to function in the intense heat.

Scientists hope to learn more about how events on the sun can affect technologies on earth such as satellites, global navigation systems, and the transmission of radio and television signals.

In a sense every photographer is about the business of capturing sunlight. Natural light photography is all about images created by light bouncing off of the objects we photograph. Even when we use strobes and other artificial lighting, we are using energy that has been captured from the Sun. Some of that energy has been stored in fossil fuels which are burned to generate electricity which charges the batteries we use for our devices. Even wind energy is the result of motions in our atmosphere that have their source in the events of the sun. Every photographer is a student of light and the source of our light is our nearest star, the sun.

I’ve put considerable energy into learning how to take pictures of sunrises and sunsets. My results, while often fairly beautiful images, fall far short of what my eye can perceive. The reality of the experience is always a bit more dramatic and powerful than what can be captured in a photograph. There are specific reasons why our eyes perceive different images from our photographs. I’ve learned a bit about using filters and sorting out the colors of light that reach the lens of the camera to enhance my images of sunrise and sunset. Still each photograph is just a reminder of the experience of watching the event.

There have been times when it has been best to just put down the camera and experience the world. Still the urge to capture the image and to have an image to study and increase understanding gets me to pick up the camera again and try again to capture a bit of the beauty that surrounds us every day in this world.

That urge to see more and learn more has led humans to invest incredible amounts of money in technology and instruments to capture even more images. I have no idea what it cost to develop the Solar Orbiter, but I am confident that the cost was incredibly high. And there is no guarantee that everything will work as planned. Space exploration is still a very risky business with errors and disasters that occur from time to time. So we will watch with baited breath as we await news and images from Solar Orbiter.

The benefits of such explorations will take time to become part of our everyday lives, but there will be benefits. There are a lot of common everyday items that we use that are the result of things learned by explorers who have crafted satellites and spacecraft and dared to explore the universe for the sake of exploration.

Solar Orbiter is going on a very long journey. The sun is nearly 92 million miles away. The orbiter is set to be launched this evening from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Space launches don’t get the same attention they did in the earliest days of space exploration, but I still am excited to think about the possibilities of what we will learn from Solar Orbiter. I am eager to see some of the images and learn what it has to teach us.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!