Solar Orbiter was launched on 10 February 2020 at 04:03 UTC (05:03 CET) from Cape Canaveral aboard an Atlas V 411 rocket provided by NASA.
The Solar Orbiter spacecraft will use a series of gravity-assist manoeuvres (GAMs) at Earth and Venus to reach its operational orbit. From a resonant orbit with Venus, subsequent GAMs will raise the orbital inclination, resulting in an operational orbit with a period of 168 days and a minimum perihelion radius of 0.28 AU.
The nominal mission of seven years will see a maximum orbital inclination relative to the solar equator of 25°. During the extended mission, additional Venus GAMs could allow the orbital inclination to increase to about 34°. The main scientific activity will take place during the near-Sun encounter and high-latitude parts of each orbit, with different science goals envisioned for each orbit.
During nominal science operations, science data will be downlinked for eight hours during each communication period with the ground station. Additional eight-hour downlink passes will be scheduled as needed to reach the required total science data return of the mission.
The Solar Orbiter ground segment will make maximum reuse of ESA's infrastructure for Deep Space missions:
- The ground stations, which belong to ESA's tracking station network (ESTRACK).
- The Mission Operations Centre (MOC), located at ESOC, Darmstadt, Germany.
- The Science Operations Centre (SOC), located at ESAC, Villanueva de la Cañada, Spain.
- The communications network, linking the various remotely located centres and stations to support the operational data traffic.
The Science Operations Centre will be responsible for mission planning and the generation of payload operations requests to the MOC, as well as science data archiving. The SOC will be operational for the active science phase of the mission, i.e. from the beginning of the Cruise Phase onwards. The handover of payload operations from the MOC to the SOC is performed at the end of the Near Earth Commissioning Phase (NECP).
ESA's Malargüe ground station in Argentina will be used for all operations throughout the mission with the ground stations in New Norcia, Australia, and Cebreros, Spain, acting as backup when necessary.