The Solar Orbiter spacecraft has brought together the UK’s world-leading experts in electronics, detectors and sensor technology. Built in the UK by Airbus, the Solar Orbiter is due to launch from Florida, US, on February 5, 2020. The spacecraft will carry 10 state-of-the-art instruments that will help study the Sun’s most fundamental phenomena.
In particular, scientists are interested in measuring solar winds and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) of scorching plasma escaping the Sun.
Dr Andrzej Fludra from RAL Space at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) told Express.co.uk one of the instruments onboard Solar Orbiter will also carry out the first spectral observations of the Sun’s polar regions.
He said: “The primary goal is to understand the physics of all these processes on the Sun and in the heliosphere, in the inner part of the heliosphere. It’s solving the fundamental physics questions.”
Dr Fludra led an international consortium of scientists and engineers at RAL Space who developed one of Solar Orbiter’s key instruments – SPICE.
SPICE or Spectral Imaging of the Coronal Mass Environment is a groundbreaking telescope designed to image the Sun’s corona – the outermost layer of the star’s atmosphere.
Solar Orbiter: UK scientists helped build this state-of-the-art spaceraft (Image: ESA/ETG MEDIALAB)
Solar Orbiter: The spacecraft will approach the Sun from 26 million miles (Image: ESA/ATG MEDIALAB)
The UK took a leading role in the construction of SPICE and the instrument was funded and supported in part by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the UK Space Agency.
The development of SPICE was also aided by 11 groups of researchers representing France, Germany, Norway, the US and Switzerland.
Dr Fludra said: “RAL Space made a large contribution to SPICE and led the international consortium.
“We contributed our extensive expertise in many scientific and engineering areas.”
Solar Orbiter is now being prepared to depart from Munich, Germany, on its trip to Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Later next year, NASA will provide launch services to blast the space probe into orbit.
It’s solving the fundamental physics questions
Dr Andrzej Fludra, RAL Space
Solar Orbiter will then take two years to approach the Sun “three times closer” than the Earth.
During this incredible voyage, the spacecraft will swing around the solar system on an orbit that will bring it close to Venus twice and Earth once.
The carefully crafted orbit will utilise the gravities of the two planets to slow the spacecraft down.
Once Solar Orbiter reaches its final destination, it will position itself within 26 million miles (42 million km) of the Sun – about the same orbit as Mercury.
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Solar orbiter: The SPICE instrument will observe the Sun’s polar regions (Image: STFC RAL SPACE)
Solar Orbiter: The space probe was built by Airbus in the UK (Image: ESA/ATG MEDIALAB)
Dr Fludra said SPICE will then observe spectra in extreme ultraviolet wavelengths to measure the temperatures and speeds of plasma in the Sun’s atmosphere.
SPICE is also equipped to study the composition of the plasma and will detect heavier elements formed at temperatures ranging between 17,540 to 17 million degrees Fahrenheit (100,000 to 10 million degrees Kelvin).
In the long-run, studying these phenomena will help scientists on Earth better understand and predict the effects of space weather events such as solar storms and CMEs.
According to Dr Fludra, how these processes operate has been one of the big questions “since the start of the space age”.
Dr Fludra said: “Once we understand how these mass ejections are originated, how they travel, also how the solar winds behave and, better still, how phenomena on the Sun are actually launched.
“Once the science is understood it will be helpful to the space weather community to inform them and impart that knowledge to them, so they can then make better predictions of these space weather events.”
At a later date in the mission, Solar Orbiter will change its position by 30 degrees for SPICE to peer down on the Sun’s polar regions.
These will mark the very first observations of the Sun’s poles where slightly cooler areas known as coronal holes are present.
But the UK’s contributions to the Solar Orbiter project do not end with SPICE.
Teams from University College London, Imperial College London and RAL Space together with the UK Science and Technologies Facilities Council were involved in four out of the 10 experiments on Solar Orbiter.
The other three instruments are the Solar Wind Analyser (SWA), Magnetometer (MAG) and Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI).
The UK Space Agency funded two of these instruments and contributed to the remaining two.
Solar Orbiter itself was built and designed by engineers at Airbus Defence and Space UK to withstand the scorching temperatures of the Sun.
The spacecraft’s design is based on ESA’s BepiColombo probe, which flew to Mercury in 2018.
Solar Orbiter was first conceived 20 years ago but it took 10 years to secure the funding for the project.
Dr Fludra said: “The planning, that is, funding really materialised in 2009 or so, and since 2012 we have started a fast track design of the instrument.
“So it’s been a very long road, longer than some other missions.”