Science

UK-built spacecraft designed to explore the sun leaves for launch site

The Solar Orbiter has been undergoing final testing in Germany ahead of its journey to Nasa's Cape Canaveral site in Florida.

A spacecraft designed by UK scientists to observe the sun in “unprecedented” detail is heading to the US ahead of its launch next year.

The Solar Orbiter has been undergoing final testing in Germany and will be launched from Nasa’s Cape Canaveral site in Florida in February 2020.

The spacecraft will orbit the sun, beaming back high-resolution photos and measuring the solar wind, as part of the European Space Agency (ESA) mission to uncover the secrets of the star.

Equipped with 10 state-of-the-art instruments, it will also take measurements of the solar magnetic fields which, according to the UK Space Agency, will “give us unprecedented insight into how the sun works, and how we can better predict periods of stormy space weather”.

The agency provided the £20 million of funding for four of the 10 scientific instruments on board the spacecraft.

Scientists and engineers from Imperial College London, the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s RAL Space laboratory and University College London (UCL) helped design and build some of those instruments.

Chris Lee, the UK Space Agency’s chief scientist, said: “Solar Orbiter is the most important UK space science mission for a generation, both because of its leading roles for UK science and industry but also because of the crucial information it will give us about living near a star like the sun.

“It has never been more important to understand this interaction because of the impact space weather can have on our satellite enabled economy.”

The orbiter will take about two years to reach the sun. It will then go into an elliptical orbit that will initially take 180 days to complete, making close approaches to the sun every six months.

During these close approaches, the Solar Orbiter will come within 42 million kilometres of the sun’s surface.

Not even the scorched planet Mercury gets this close to the sun, approaching 58 million kilometres at its closest, the ESA said.

Ian Walters, Solar Orbiter project manager at Airbus, which also helped build the spacecraft, said: “Solar Orbiter has been one of the most challenging and exciting missions we have ever designed and built here at Stevenage.

“Not only have we engineered a spacecraft that can withstand the intense solar radiation that is 13 times more powerful than that in Earth’s orbit, we have also made it virtually invisible to its sensors so that it can take accurate measurements to enable a step change in the understanding of the sun.”

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