Solar Orbiter – Europe’s eyes on the Sun
(10 February 2020 - Thales) ESA’s Solar Orbiter has been successfully launched yesterday from Cape Canaveral in Florida (USA), on an Atlas V411 rocket supplied by NASA.
Thales Alenia Space provided the Heat Shield to Airbus Defence and Space serving as prime contractor for the spacecraft, and, in consortium with OHB Italia, one of the ten scientific instrument called Metis funded by the Italian Space Agency ASI. Getting closer to the Sun than ever before, this mission is essential for a deeper understanding of heliosphere and its impact on Earth, helping us face the global challenges of space weather.
Closer to the sun
In just over 2 years, after gravity-assisted maneuvers around Venus and Earth, the Solar Orbiter will reach its operational orbit in the innermost region of the Solar System, observing the Sun from a minimum distance of just 0.28 Astronomical Units (AU), i.e. 28% of Earth-Sun average distance, and up to 34° above the solar equator. The spacecraft is equipped with 10 science instruments: 6 for “remote-sensing”, dedicated to observation and imaging of the Sun, and 4 “In-situ”, for measuring the heliospheric environment around the spacecraft. During its seven-year mission, these sophisticated equipments will measure the solar wind plasma, the magnetic field, electromagnetic and electrostatic waves, and energetic particles emitted by the Sun, and it will obtain spectacular images of solar features at a resolution never achieved before, including the complete characterization of solar corona, thanks to Metis.
Metis: an innovative coronagraph
Metis is designed to provide the first ever simultaneous imaging of the off-limb solar corona in visible and in narrow-band ultraviolet light. This observations will enable us to diagnose, with unprecedented temporal coverage and spatial resolution, the structures and dynamics of the full corona and its features, finally disentangling their intrinsic evolution from effects of solar rotation. The data gathered by Metis will allow scientists to completely characterize remotely the two most important plasma components of the corona and the solar wind (electrons and protons) and answer fundamental questions about the origins of the fast and slow wind, the sources of solar energetic particles, and the eruption and early changes in coronal mass ejections.
Metis (courtesy: Thales Alenia Space)
The Heat Shield: to match the biggest challenge of the mission
Thales Alenia Space expertise tackled the biggest challenge of this mission: the thermal protection. Due to its proximity to the Sun, the Solar Orbiter will be exposed to approximately 13 times more solar energy than on Earth’s orbit, causing the surface temperature to soar over 500°C. The Heat Shield is an highly efficient thermal barrier, designed and manufactured by Thales Alenia Space, which will prevent the whole spacecraft from damaging and melting and at the same time will allow Metis and other sensors a direct view to the Sun. Its black painted high temperature front shield is made of several protective layers of titanium and is further isolated from the satellite by a proper combination of lower temperature blankets, aluminum core honeycomb and titanium star bracket.
Solar Orbiter Heat Shield (courtesy: Thales Alenia Space)
Solar Orbiter will be able to orientate and maintain itself in the correct orbit with the help of Leonardo's star trackers (AA-STR). Similar to compasses, the two sensors on board help to guide and orient the satellite in space in an accurate and reliable way, with a very low mass and with low energy consumption for that type of instrument.
Thales Alenia Space reinforces its role as leading space exploration enabler, generating giant leaps in capabilities and performance of sophisticated equipment, thus contributing in meeting the Solar Orbiter’s scientific goals. The Company continues with tradition of fundamental contributions to the key European space exploration programs, such as Mercury mission BepiColombo, Herschel, the infrared space observatory, Planck, the mission that looked back to the dawn of time, but also facing future challenges with the Euclid ESA mission, that will map the Universe and help us understand better the dark matter and dark energy, scheduled for launch in 2022.
About Thales Alenia Space
Drawing on over 40 years of experience and a unique combination of skills, expertise and cultures, Thales Alenia Space delivers cost-effective solutions for telecommunications, navigation, Earth observation, environmental management, exploration, science and orbital infrastructures. Governments and private industry alike count on Thales Alenia Space to design satellite-based systems that provide anytime, anywhere connections and positioning, monitor our planet, enhance management of its resources, and explore our Solar System and beyond. Thales Alenia Space sees space as a new horizon, helping to build a better, more sustainable life on Earth. A joint venture between Thales (67%) and Leonardo (33%), Thales Alenia Space also teams up with Telespazio to form the parent companies’ Space Alliance, which offers a complete range of services. Thales Alenia Space posted consolidated revenues of 2.5 billion euros in 2018 and has 8,000 employees in nine countries.