Orbiting the Sun to explore all sides of it
Updated: Feb 6, 2021
When spacecraft get launched into space, they do not follow a straight line. They are affected by the big gravity of planets or stars and so they start circling around them. In the case of Solar Orbiter, it was launched with so much velocity that it could escape the Earth and it started following an orbit around the Sun, just as the planets do but then in a more elliptical orbit.
In the first orbit around the Sun, Solar orbiter already came quite close to the star, about half the distance between Sun and Earth, at 0.52 AU or Astronomical Units (= distance Earth-Sun). That was in June 2020. Then it moved away from the Sun again, following the elliptical orbit, to complete the first rotation around our star.
At this moment, Solar Orbiter is approaching the Sun a second time. Today, 27 Jan 2021, it is located at 0.53AU from the Sun and it will come as close as 0.49AU, that is 74.000.000km, on 10 February.
But the spacecraft is actually really far from the Earth right now. It is currently flying behind the Sun, looking at its back side. So summing up the distance between Earth and Sun and Sun and spacecraft, that means that Solar Orbiter is as far as 1.5 AU from us right now. That makes it more difficult to communicate: if we send up new commands, it takes the signal about 12 minutes to reach the spacecraft and then 12 minutes back to receive the answer.
If you want to know everything about where Solar Orbiter is right now and where it will go next, check the trajectory here: https://solarorbiter.esac.esa.int/where/