ESA inks €300m deal with Astrium UK to build sun explorer

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ESA's next-generation sun explorer, Solar Orbiter, will be launched in 2017. It will investigate the connections and the coupling between the sun and the heliosphere, a huge bubble in space created by the solar wind. Credits: ESA/AOES

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The European Space Agency (ESA) has awarded Astrium, a subsidiary of EADS, a contract worth around €300m to build its next-generation sun explorer, which will carry the name of Solar Orbiter.

Astrium UK will lead a team of European companies who will supply various parts of the spacecraft. The ESA confirmed the contract carries a value of about €300m. It said this was one of the largest ever signed between the ESA science programme and a UK company.

As for Solar Orbiter, the ESA wants to launch it by 2017. It said the spacecraft would investigate how the sun creates and controls the heliosphere, a huge bubble in space created by solar wind.

Prof Alvaro Giménez Cañete, ESA director of science and robotic exploration, and Miranda Mills, national director of earth observation, navigation and science at Astrium, signed the contract yesterday.

In addition, 10 scientific instruments will be funded by the member states of ESA and the US. The instruments will be developed by teams led by principal investigators from Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, the UK and the US.

Solar Orbiter will be built at Astrium’s Stevenage facility in the UK.

The ESA said Solar Orbiter will continues a long tradition of European sun explorers, including Helios 1 and Helios 2, Ulysses, and SOHO, all in partnership with NASA.

Solar Orbiter is a fantastic mission," said Giménez Cañete yesterday. "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."

Solar wind can cause auroras and disrupt satellite-based communication on Earth.

NASA will contribute one full instrument and one sensor to the Solar Orbiter launcher. The mission lifespan of the spacecraft will be seven years.

Astrium confirmed that, at its closest point, Solar Orbiter will be closer to the sun than the planet Mercury, at a distance of 0.28 astronomical units (42m kilometres), in an orbit that would take it out of the ecliptic plane.

In order to position itself in this challenging orbit, Astrium said Solar Orbiter would make a complex series of gravitational-assist fly-bys past both planets Earth and Venus.

Astrium was also the prime contractor of ESA’s Ulysses mission.

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Carmel was a long-time reporter with Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com