From Ariel-1 to Solar Orbiter: Astrium awarded €300 million contract to build the latest mission to study the sun
26 Apr 2012
UK company Astrium has been selected by the European Space Agency as the prime contractor for the Solar Orbiter mission that will perform close-up observations of the Sun. The €300 million contract was signed on the anniversary of the launch of Ariel-1 as part of the celebrations for the 50th Anniversary of the UK in Space held by the UK Space Agency at the Science Museum, London on 26 April.
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[L-R] Vince Cable (Secretary of State for Business), David Williams (Chief Executive, UK Space Agency), Alvarro Gimenez (Director, ESA) Colin Paynter (Chief Executive, Astrium Ltd) Miranda Mills (UK National Director, Astrium Ltd).
Credit: Max Alexander.
The signing happened on the anniversary of the launch of Ariel-1 the UK’s first space mission. Ariel-1 was also concerned with studying the sun. The six instruments carried by Ariel-1 were designed to examine the relationship between the ionosphere, at the top of the atmosphere, and solar and cosmic rays. Solar Orbiter builds on the legacy of Ariel-1 and the other solar missions the UK has been involved in.
Solar Orbiter is the first mission in ESA's Cosmic Vision programme to start its implementation phase. The mission lifetime will be 7 years.
“Today ESA awarded a very important contract in the space science domain to Astrium’s spacecraft design and build facility at Stevenage in the UK,” said Prof. Giménez Cañete. “This is testimony to the important role that the UK has played in space flight since the launch of Ariel-1 in 1962 and it is testimony to the important role that the UK continues to play in space science.”
Solar Orbiter will study the Sun in detail and its effects on the solar system. The spacecraft will carry a suite of complementary instruments that will measure the particles, fields and waves of the plasma through which it travels, and at the same time make observations of the Sun's surface and outer atmosphere, the photosphere and corona.
At its closest point Solar Orbiter will be closer to the Sun than the planet Mercury, at a distance of 0.28 Astronomical Units (42 million kilometres), in an orbit that takes it out of the ecliptic plane. From here, it can perform long-duration observations of the same region of the Sun’s surface, and have visibility of the Sun’s polar regions. It will be one of the closest approaches of the Sun by any spacecraft. To position itself in this challenging orbit, Solar Orbiter will make a complex series of gravitational-assist fly-bys past both Earth and Venus.
“I am delighted that Astrium has won Solar Orbiter which reaffirms our leading position in science and exploration missions. Solar Orbiter is the second prime contract awarded by ESA to Astrium in less than six months. This contract builds on our unrivalled heritage in solar missions which includes the SOHO satellite which is still operational after 17 years providing valuable data for solar scientists across the world,” said Colin Paynter, Head of Astrium UK.
Design challenges include accommodating and resourcing a large suite of cutting-edge instruments and ensuring stringent magnetic and molecular cleanliness to enable the most sensitive scientific measurements to be made effectively. At its closest approach, where sunlight is thirteen times more intense than it is for satellites orbiting the Earth, Solar Orbiter must survive intense thermal radiation and protect its instrument suite, while at the same time allowing those instruments to observe the Sun. To achieve this, the design includes a heat shield and incorporates new high-temperature solar array technology.
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Artist's impression of Solar Orbiter.
The Sun is vital for life on Earth, but can also cause major problems for satellites and Earth based systems. The Sun releases bursts of high-energy particles (Coronal Mass Ejections), 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.
The signature marks the start of the development and construction phase of Solar Orbiter, due for launch in 2017. Astrium UK will lead a team of European companies who will supply various parts of the spacecraft. The contract carries a value of about €300 million, one of the largest ever signed between the ESA Science Programme and a UK company.
Business Secretary Vince Cable, who witnessed the signing, said: “Today’s €300 million contract signing shows the continued success of the UK space industry and underlines our leading position in space science and satellite technology. With a world class research base and innovative companies like Astrium, we are developing products and services that are in global demand, driving growth and supporting high tech jobs.”
Cosmic Vision is the European Space Agency science programme which involves long term planning for space science missions to discover more about our Solar System and the Universe.
For more information about other solar missions the UK is involved in visit the mission pages for Cluster, Hinode, SOHO, Ulysses and STEREO.