Historic Solar Orbiter mission takes off with Irish tech on board

10 Feb 2020

Solar Orbiter launching on its mission to the sun. Image: ESA/S Corvaja

NASA and ESA’s Solar Orbiter mission has successfully taken off as it begins its journey to answer some of astronomy’s biggest questions.

The Solar Orbiter – which aims to unlock the secrets of the sun – is on its way to the star. Built by Airbus, it lifted off into space in the Atlas V 411 rocket from NASA’s Cape Canaveral site in Florida just after 4am Irish time this morning (10 February).

There were hugs of congratulations and relief at the ESA’s European Space Operations Centre at the successful launch. In Florida, Gunther Hasinger, ESA’s director of science, and Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for the science mission directorate, gave a thumbs up, declaring: “We have a mission.”

Signals from the spacecraft were received at New Norcia Station ground station at 5am, following separation from the launcher upper stage in low Earth orbit.

Hasinger said: “As humans, we have always been familiar with the importance of the sun to life on Earth, observing it and investigating how it works in detail, but we have also long known it has the potential to disrupt everyday life should we be in the firing line of a powerful solar storm.”

Infographic explaining the stages of the Solar Orbiter mission

Image: PA Graphics

A long time coming

César García Marirrodriga, ESA’s Solar Orbiter project manager, added: “After some 20 years since inception, six years of construction and more than a year of testing, together with our industrial partners we have established new high-temperature technologies and completed the challenge of building a spacecraft that is ready to face the sun and study it up close.”

The satellite will orbit the star, beaming back high-resolution photos and measuring the solar wind as part of the mission led by the ESA. It will take about two years to reach the sun, which scientists call the “cruising phase”.

Coated with a heat shield developed by Irish firm Enbio, called SolarBlack, the spacecraft can endure temperatures of more than 500 degrees Celsius, hot enough to melt lead. The satellite will make a close approach to the sun every five months, and at its closest will only be 42m km away, closer than the planet Mercury.

Strong Irish connections

At these times, the orbiter will be positioned over roughly the same region of the sun’s surface for several days, as the sun rotates on its axis. This will allow the spacecraft to observe magnetic activity building up in the atmosphere that can lead to powerful flares and eruptions, providing new insights into the giant storms raging on its surface.

Predicting when these storms occur could help governments and companies protect these satellites and other communications infrastructure.

Enbio is one of a number of Irish connections to this latest mission, with Dublin-based Captec being responsible for testing all of the software for Solar Orbiter’s 10 state-of-the-art instruments including its cameras and devices to measure solar magnetic fields.

Prof Peter Gallagher – head of astronomy and astrophysics at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) was also named as co-investigator for the spacecraft’s Solar Telescope Imaging X-Rays instrument. Together, Enbio and Captec won a total of €3.1m in industrial contracts for the Solar Orbiter mission.

– PA Media, with additional reporting from Colm Gorey