Stevenage to the Sun with stellar contract for space firm

A space technology company has won a �244m contract to get the closest ever view of the Sun.

Stevenage is to play a major role in exploring the star after Gunnels Wood Road space company Astrium signed a contract with the European Space Agency to build a satellite to perform close-up observations.

The Solar Orbiter will help scientists understand the causes of space weather during a seven year mission, the first in a programme of solar explorations by the agency. It is scheduled for launch in 2017.

An Astrium spokesman said: “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 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.”

At its closest point the satellite will be closer to the Sun than Mercury, at a distance of 42 million kilometres – one of the closest approaches of the Sun by any spacecraft. To position itself in this orbit it will make a complex series of fly-bys past both Earth and Venus and have to endure intense thermal radiation.

Stephen McPartland, Stevenage MP and vice chairman of the parliamentary space committee, said the contract puts Stevenage at the heart of the space manufacturing industry in the UK and is helping the town lead the way in economically difficult times.

The Orbiter builds on Astrium’s successful SOHO and Ulysses solar missione which have increased understanding of the workings of our nearest star.

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