Solar Orbiter spacecraft built in Stevenage prepares to take closest ever image of the Sun

The Solar Orbiter built at Airbus' Stevenage site is set to take the closest ever images of the Sun.

The Solar Orbiter built at Airbus' Stevenage site is set to take the closest ever images of the Sun. Picture: Airbus - Credit: Archant

A spacecraft built in Stevenage is set to take the closest ever images of the Sun and uncover the secrets of the fiery orb.

At its closest point, the Solar Orbiter, which was built at Airbus on Gunnels Wood Road and launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral in February, will be closer to the Sun than the planet Mercury, at a distance of 42 million kilometres - nothing has ever been closer with a camera.

The spacecraft is equipped with 10 instruments - including five telescopes - and will take measurements as well as images, studying the Sun and its effects on the solar system in unprecedented detail.

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.

Airbus project manager Ian Walters said: “In 1859, one such episode took down the world’s telegraph network. A similar event today would severely disrupt our power grids, mobile phone towers, navigation systems and many other critical technologies. If we could predict it was coming our way, we’d have about two days’ notice for emergency government committees to be activated and react, instead of the few minutes’ notice we receive today.”

Eckard Settelmeyer, Airbus’ head of earth observation, navigation and science institutional satellite projects, said: “Solar Orbiter has been one of the most challenging and exciting missions we have ever designed and built at Stevenage.

“Sending it so close to the Sun means that some parts of the spacecraft have to withstand temperatures of more than 500°C, with others in permanent shadow down to a nippy -180°C.”

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Ian says the most critical heat protection technology is the Stand-off Radiator Assembly – radiators on the spacecraft’s side that is always in shadow, enabling them to quickly transfer heat from the instruments into space.

Eckard added: “To ensure the very sensitive instruments can measure the Sun’s fields and particles, the spacecraft itself must be totally invisible to its sensors, which has pushed us to the absolute limits of what is technically achievable.”