ESA Solar Orbiter satellite is ready to uncover the sun’s mysteries

19 Sep 2018

Artist’s impression of the Solar Orbiter facing the sun. Image: ESA

The Solar Orbiter probe will transport telescopes closer to the sun than ever before.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is planning an ambitious mission involving a specially designed spacecraft entering the sun’s orbit. The Solar Orbiter will launch in February 2020 aboard a NASA rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida. From there, it will take around three years to reach its vantage point, 43m kilometres away from the solar surface.

The satellite, which was built in the UK, is now getting ready to leave the Airbus factory in Stevenage to travel to Germany for testing ahead of its 2020 launch.

A collaborative project

The UK Space Agency funded teams from University College London, Imperial College London and RAL Space to design and build three out of the 10 state-of-the-art scientific instruments on board the spacecraft, and to contribute to a fourth. Other institutions involved include the Centre Spatial de Liège in Belgium and the University of Alcalá in Spain.

The ESA spacecraft is specially engineered to withstand the intense heat from the sun that will hit one side, while the other side is frozen as the orbit keeps it in shadow. According to the BBC, the heat shield on the spacecraft will have to cope with temperatures of up to 600 degrees Celsius.

The secrets of the sun

Daniel Müller, ESA project scientist for the Solar Orbiter, explained what exactly the goal is: “The overarching science question we’re trying to tackle is about how the sun creates this plasma bubble around it, and how solar activity changes in time and also changes this bubble we all live in.”

The spacecraft will provide close-up views of the sun’s polar regions and will track features such as solar storms and solar winds, the latter of which is responsible for the northern lights phenomenon here on Earth.

If this missions seems familiar, it may be because NASA launched its own solar probe, Parker, in August of this year. The two missions will offer complementary perspectives of the sun. Parker will travel through the sun’s atmosphere, while the Solar Orbiter will observe the surface. The Solar Orbiter may also be able to capture images of the NASA spacecraft, unlike Parker.

The NASA mission will also go to within 7m kilometres of the solar surface, enabling it to sample the outer atmosphere of the sun. A series of flybys of the nearby planet Venus will allow the spacecraft to gravitationally manoeuvre itself into an inclined orbit. This enables it to examine the sun’s poles.

UK Space Agency head of science, Chris Lee, said it is “an exciting time for solar science”.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects