Airbus’ Stevenage-built Solar Orbiter set for take off

Airbus' Solar Orbiter built in Stevenage is set to launch to the centre of the Solar System. Picture

Airbus' Solar Orbiter built in Stevenage is set to launch to the centre of the Solar System. Picture: Airbus Defence and Space UK - Credit: Archant

Airbus’ Solar Orbiter is to make its way to Florida before heading to the centre of our Solar System, having been designed and built in Stevenage.

The Solar Orbiter has been fitted inside the protective fairing and mounted on top of the launcher ahead of its journey to Cape Canaveral in the US on Sunday evening.

The European Space Agency (ESA) mission will revolutionise understanding of how the Sun creates and controls the giant bubble of plasma surrounding the Solar System and influences the planets within it.

Solar Orbiter has 10 in-situ and remote sensing instruments to take photographs, spectra, measure solar wind plasma, fields, waves and energetic particles very close to the Sun.

The Stevenage-built spacecraft will make a close approach to the Sun every five months. At its closest approach, Solar Orbiter will only be 42 million km away - closer than the planet Mercury.

During these times it will be positioned for several days over roughly the same region of the Sun's surface, as the Sun rotates on its axis.

This will enable unprecedented observations of magnetic activity building up in the atmosphere that can lead to powerful flares and eruptions.

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The spacecraft will use gravity assist manoeuvres at Venus to achieve its elliptical operational orbit and further fly-by manoeuvres to increase its inclination to view the Sun from the Polar Regions for the first time in history.

Solar Orbiter will have to endure temperatures of more than 500°C - hot enough to melt lead.

Its heat shield - with a coating called SolarBlack - will continually face the Sun, protecting the sensitive instruments behind it, some of which still require heaters to keep them warm and at optimum operating temperature.

Ian Walters, Airbus' programme manager for Solar Orbiter, said: "After eight years of design and manufacture, Solar Orbiter is now ready to launch and to study the Sun as never before.

"Everyone in Airbus is excited and just a little apprehensive as we approach the day when the spacecraft starts its journey to the Sun."

ESA selected Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage to design and build Solar Orbiter in 2012. The mission's lifetime will be up to 10 years. Solar Orbiter builds on hugely successful Airbus-built missions such as SOHO and Ulysses that have provided remarkable insights into the workings of our Sun.

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