Solar Orbiter leaves Stevenage for tests ahead of magnetic fields mission
- Credit: Picture: DANNY LOO
It was an emotional day at Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage today, as the project team said goodbye to its Solar Orbiter probe ahead of its billion-pound mission to unlock the secrets of our sun’s magnetic fields.
The Solar Orbiter, a flagship mission for both Airbus and the European Space Agency, will take the first-ever photographs of the sun’s north and south poles.
“New science awaits,” was the line from Airbus’ Solar Orbiter project manager Ian Walters, to a press contingent including the Comet, the BBC and an assortment of national and international media outlets.
The exact cost of the mission is difficult to gauge, but is between one billion and 1.5 billion euros. The UK has put in about £200 million.
The orbiter is now on its way to testing in Munich, where it will spend about a year before going to Cape Canaveral in Florida ahead of a launch aboard one of NASA’s Atlas rockets in February 2020.
The Solar Orbiter will cruise for about 1.8 years before reaching an orbit about 47 million km (29.2 million miles) from the sun, after which it will have a nominal four-year mission duration. An extended phase of 3.5 years takes the potential total time, on paper, up to just shy of 10 years.
The orbiter will have to withstand temperatures of up to 600°C near the sun, and as low as -180°C in deep space.
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This is the first ESA solar science mission since SOHO, which launched in 1995 – and Mr Walters said it was a flagship project for both Airbus and the ESA. It will work in conjunction with NASA’s Parker Solar Probe mission, which launched last month – with Hitchin-born Dr Nicky Fox as project scientist.
Solar Orbiter will not go quite as near to the sun as the Parker probe, but will have instruments and telescopes aboard allowing direct in-situ observations that Parker cannot provide.
Dr Daniel Müller, the Solar Orbiter’s German chief scientist, said the goal of the mission was to learn about the magnetic fields that rise to the sun’s surface during a cycle of about 11 years.
“We’ll take the first pictures of the solar polar region – key to understanding the solar cycle,” he said. “We’ll provide super-high-resolution pictures of the sun.”
Solar physics professor Louise Harra, of University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, said it was emotional to see Solar Orbiter for the last time before it left the UK.
She said the sun creates the largest explosions in our solar system, and that “Solar Orbiter will be getting up close and personal.”
“We’ve never been able to look down directly at the poles,” she said. There will be some interesting phenomena there.”
UK Space Agency head Chris Lee said he was delighted to see UK engineering showcased so clearly in projects like Solar Orbiter – and paid tribute to the contractors, particularly the Stevenage-based Airbus team.
“Missions like Solar Orbiter not only showcase our technological capabilities for the world, showing what the UK can do, they also act as hooks for the best graduates,” he said.
He noted that British scientists were in leading roles for not only European space missions, but American and Japanese ones too.
“These are not just sciencey missions,” he said. “They are truly necessary for our community to prosper.
“We pull together the very best of European science and engineering, not just the UK. We will continue to support the European Space Agency and its leadership.”
Asked how a no-deal Brexit might impact on this, the speakers were united in saying it would have none.
Airbus’ Justin Byrne said: “ESA is not the European Commission. The UK was a founder member of the ESA and will remain so.”
Mr Lee said a no-deal Brexit would have “no effect” on space collaboration, adding: “Airbus, I’m sure, would continue to want to build more spacecraft in the UK.”