3-2-1-0 We Have Solar Orbiter Liftoff!

Today we have a special treat. My friend and fellow aurora hunter Melissa Kaelin covered the February 9th launch of the Solar Orbiter as a NASA Social Media Ambassador. I am delighted she agreed to share her impressions in this guest blog. If you’ve ever wanted to experience a rocket launch, Melissa will take you there. Read on!


Solar Orbiter launch. Skip to the 1 minute 17 second mark to go directly to the launch.

Fire. That’s the emoji a social media guru would choose to describe the launch of the NASA/ESA Solar Orbiter on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020. That’s what I witnessed with my own eyes, when I broadcasted the launch live as a NASA Social Media Ambassador.

The spacecraft formed fiery plumes as it shot up from the Kennedy Space Center on an Atlas V rocket, but it was bound for an even hotter destination: an orbit near the sun’s corona. Tested to withstand temperatures up to 13 times higher than normal satellites, the Solar Orbiter set out to capture the first images of the sun’s poles.

During the launch, I had the unique honor to go behind the scenes as part of a NASA Social. It was my first-ever rocket launch, and one very dear to my heart. You see, I am an Aurora Chaser. I thrill at thoughts of star gazing, solar activity, and, especially, chasing the aurora borealis.

This rare phenomenon starts with the solar wind. When that solar matter comes hurtling toward our planet, it interacts with the particles in Earth’s atmosphere to create brilliant, dancing color — what we know as the Northern Lights. The Solar Orbiter will explore the magnetic field and the polar regions of the sun, working in tandem with the Parker Solar Probe to make new discoveries about our own star. The orbiter will observe events on the surface of the sun, like solar flares and coronal mass ejections, to help us better understand space weather and the solar wind.

The next space mission to study the sun in detail is called Solar Orbiter. Its launch date is Feb. 7 at 10:15 p.m. CST. NASA

When I watched the Solar Orbiter launch into space, I was moved beyond words. On a cool Florida night, I stood in the dark with a diverse group of social media experts as we awaited liftoff. We had a phenomenal view of the site, just 13 miles from the launch pad. Under the light of a full moon, the Vehicle Assembly Building towered behind us, and the historic countdown clock ticked off the minutes from a spot on the nearby grass. We readied our cameras and digital devices, whispering in a line along the shore. Across the water, the rocket rumbled to a start. It rose with a deep, low sound, building gradually, and it exploded with brilliance and volume, leaving a fiery trail below. The rocket lifted upward with the percussive work of the engines. Fire and fumes left a thick, glowing trail on the sky.

The ESA/NASA Solar Orbiter mission to study the sun launches under a big full moon from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Feb. 9, 2020. Jared Frankle, NASA Solar Orbiter Social Participant

Even as the spacecraft raced toward the sun, it seemed to be flying to the moon, making a perfect arc in the night. Just before it reached the moon, though, it tilted in its path, making its way out of the Earth’s atmosphere. A burst of light greeted our eyes, while the distant spacecraft made one last blast and parted worlds.

I still thrill at the memory of this moment! It was awe-inspiring to be present for this gorgeous launch, and to play a role in the making of history for our fiery star.

By Melissa F. Kaelin, Aurora Summit Cofounder, KaelinArt.com

(Would you like to see a rocket launch at Cape Canaveral some day? Click here for information, locations and prices.)