By Lily Westerby-Griffin
Europe’s own Solar Orbiter is getting prepared to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on the 10th of February 2020. The European Space Agency’s (ESA) £1.3 billion mission is set to answer some of science’s biggest questions about our star by imaging the Sun’s magnetic poles for the first time, this will be used to analyse the effects of space weather on Earth. ESA will collaborate with NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, combining data in hope to answer fundamental questions about our star.
The spacecraft was built at Airbus Stevenage, UK, and once completed was transferred to Munich, Germany to be stress tested to ensure the craft could survive in some of the harshest conditions in our Solar System. The launch will use the gravity of Venus to slingshot Solar Orbiter out of the inecliptic plane of the Solar System. After 8 years, the spacecraft will then enter an elliptical orbit just 42 million kilometres from the Sun above its poles taking some of the most detailed images and data of our star yet. However, being this close to the Sun comes with its own challenges. Sun-facing parts of the craft have to withstand 500°C temperatures as well as a constant shower of radiation thirteen times stronger than the radiation received in Earth orbital satellites. Whilst the parts of the craft in shadow will have to survive in -180°C. These two requirements have led to the development of cutting-edge heat shields to protect the craft in such extreme conditions.
Solar Orbiter has been equipped with ten instruments. These instruments will be directly imaging the radiation in-situ. It will look to observe our stars magnetic and electric processes, looking through a protective glass to withstand the extreme radiation. Instruments inside the craft will image the solar surface and coronal environments.
Our Solar System is full of charged particles (plasma) formed of the by-products of the reactions that power our Sun. This makes Earth vulnerable to electromagnetic damage during Solar storms. Produced mostly by the Sun’s magnetic poles, solar storms cause this plasma to slam into the Earth’s magnetic field, producing electromagnetic disruptions all over the world. Famously, the aurora borealis is caused by these storms, but not all of these interactions cause such beautiful effects. In 1989, a storm caused the collapse of an entire energy grid in Canada, leaving six million residents without power for nine hours. Even smaller scale storms regularly create errors in GPS systems, these errors produce position inaccuracies of tens of meters. The elliptical orbit of the spacecraft will provide the first views of the Sun’s uncharted poles above the poles of the sun to aid a deeper understanding of these storms.
With the solar orbiter and the two instruments used for imaging being built here in the UK, the Space Orbiter will arguably be one of the most significant scientific launches in British history.