Solar Orbiter (credit Astrium / 2012)

Astrium UK to build Solar Orbiter satellite

Astrium UK has won a €300m contract to build the Solar Orbiter spacecraft that will perform close-up observations of the Sun.

The European Space Agency (ESA) awarded the contract to Astrium which will draw on its science mission expertise including the solar spacecraft SOHO and Ulysses.

“Today ESA awarded a very important contract in the space science domain to Astrium’s spacecraft design and build facility at Stevenage in the UK,” said Prof. Giménez Cañete, ESA director of Science and Robotic Exploration.

“This is testimony to the important role that the UK has played in space flight since the launch of Ariel-1 in 1962 and it is testimony to the important role that the UK continues to play in space science.”

Solar Orbiter is the first mission in ESA’s Cosmic Vision programme to start its implementation phase and is scheduled for launch in 2017.

Solar Orbiter will study the Sun in detail and its effects on the solar system over its seven year mission lifetime.

The spacecraft will also measure the particles, fields and waves of the plasma through which it travels, and at the same time make observations of the Sun’s surface and outer atmosphere, the photosphere and corona.

At its closest point Solar Orbiter will be closer to the Sun than the planet Mercury, at a distance of 0.28 Astronomical Units (42 million kilometers), in an orbit that takes it out of the ecliptic plane.

From here, it can perform long-duration observations of the same region of the Sun’s surface, and have visibility of the Sun’s polar regions.

It will be one of the closest approaches of the Sun by any spacecraft.

“Solar Orbiter is a fantastic mission,” said Prof. Giménez Cañete.

“It will help us understand how the Sun, essential to almost all life on Earth, forms the heliosphere and the origin of space weather, which can have an enormous influence on our modern civilisation.”

To position itself in this challenging orbit, Solar Orbiter will make a complex series of gravitational-assist fly-bys past both Earth and Venus.

Astrium said the design challenges include accommodating and resourcing a large suite of cutting-edge instruments and ensuring stringent magnetic and molecular cleanliness to enable the most sensitive scientific measurements to be made effectively.

At its closest approach, where sunlight is thirteen times more intense than it is for satellites orbiting the Earth, Solar Orbiter must survive intense thermal radiation and protect its instrument suite, while at the same time allowing those instruments to observe the Sun.

To achieve this, the design includes a heat shield and incorporates new high-temperature solar array technology.

The Sun is vital for life on Earth, but can also cause major problems for satellites and Earth based systems.

The Sun releases bursts of high-energy particles (Coronal Mass Ejections), which can disrupt electrical power distribution systems, cause computers to crash, damage satellites and endanger astronauts.

Solar Orbiter will provide scientific data to better understand the mechanisms on the Sun that cause these violent and disruptive outbursts.

Solar Orbiter builds on hugely successful missions such as SOHO and Ulysses that have provided remarkable insights into the workings of our Sun.

Like those missions, it is a collaboration between ESA and NASA – a launcher will be provided by NASA and one instrument and one sensor will be contributed from the United States.

“I am delighted that Astrium has won Solar Orbiter, which reaffirms our leading position in science and exploration missions,” said Colin Paynter, Head of Astrium UK.

“This contract builds on our unrivalled heritage in solar missions which includes the SOHO satellite which is still operational after 17 years providing valuable data for solar scientists across the world.”

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