Solar Orbiter commissioned in orbit despite Covid-19
Airbus has successfully completed the In-Orbit Commissioning (IOC) of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Solar Orbiter spacecraft, by the teams working from home as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
At 165 million km away from Earth, Solar Orbiter is definitely keeping its social distance, but its commissioning presented a challenge to the teams who would normally work together in the office to complete the IOCprocess. Instead, under the leadership of Airbus project Manager Ian Walters, the team met online at least once a day to make sure the process was tackled quickly and efficiently.
Ian Walters, project manager for Solar Orbiter at Airbus said: “In the four months since launch we have been keeping an eye on every move to make sure Solar Orbiter performs as it should. If someone had told me in February that we would be doing the in-orbit commissioning while working from home I would have been horrified – but in the event the teams all worked perfectly together online and we achieved it without a hitch.”
ESA confirms that the IOC has been completed on time by the Airbus prime team and it is believed that this is the first “virtual” ESA Mission Commissioning Results Review (MCRR).
Immediately after launch from Cape Canaveral on 10th February 2020 Airbus began closely monitoring the spacecraft, testing all systems, all the spare units and the 10 instruments including the Solar Wind Plasma Analyser (SWA) which will measure the solar winds’ properties and composition.
Checks were carried out to verify that the next phase of the mission could start and that ESA’s Operations Centre (ESOC) was ready to take full control of the mission.
After successfully making its first close pass of the Sun on 15 June at 77 million kilometres, Solar Orbiter’s next major step is a Venus fly by on 27th December this year. It will use the gravity of the planet to first reduce the distance to the Sun and then gradually shift the spacecraft’s orbit out of the ecliptic plane. The full science phase of the mission is due to start in March 2022.
About Solar Orbiter
Solar Orbiter’s mission is to perform unprecedented close-up observations of the Sun and from high-latitudes, providing the first images of the uncharted polar regions of the Sun, and investigating the Sun-Earth connection. The spacecraft carries 10 state-of-the-art instruments. Remote sensing payloads will perform high-resolution imaging of the Sun’s “atmosphere” as well as the solar disc. Other instruments will measure the solar wind and the solar magnetic fields in the vicinity of the orbiter. This will provide unprecedented insight into how our parent star works in terms of the 11-year solar cycle, and how we can better predict periods of stormy space weather.
N° 13–2020: Call for Media: ESA to reveal first images from Solar Orbiter
First images from ESA’s Solar Orbiter to be revealed:
The first images from ESA’s new Sun-observing spacecraft Solar Orbiter will be released to the public on 16 July 2020. Media representatives are invited to watch an online press briefing, which will take place at 14:00 CEST (13:00 BST), and talk to the scientists behind the mission.
Solar Orbiter, launched on 10 February, completed its commissioning phase in mid-June and performed its first close approach to the Sun. Shortly thereafter, the European and US science teams behind the mission’s 10 instruments were able to test the entire instrument suite in concert for the first time.
- Better than expected
Despite the setbacks the teams faced while commissioning the spacecraft and its instruments amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the first imaging campaign has been a great success.
“The first images are exceeding our expectations,” says Daniel Müller, Solar Orbiter Project Scientist at ESA. “We can already see hints of very interesting phenomena that we have not been able to observe in detail before. The 10 instruments on board Solar Orbiter work beautifully, and together provide a holistic view of the Sun and the solar wind. This makes us confident that Solar Orbiter will help us answer profound open questions about the Sun.”
- We have never been closer with a camera
No other images of the Sun have been taken from such a close distance. During its first perihelion, the point in the spacecraft’s elliptical orbit closest to the Sun, Solar Orbiter got as close as 77 million kilometres from the star’s surface, about half the distance between the Sun and Earth. The spacecraft will eventually make much closer approaches to the Sun. The spacecraft is now in its cruise phase, gradually adjusting its orbit around the Sun. Once in its science phase, which will commence in late 2021, the spacecraft will get as close as 42 million kilometres from the Sun’s surface, closer than the planet Mercury. The spacecraft’s operators will gradually tilt Solar Orbiter’s orbit to enable the probe to get the first proper view of the Sun’s poles.
- An international mission
Solar Orbiter is a space mission of international collaboration between ESA and NASA. Twelve ESA Member States (Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom) as well as NASA contributed to the science payload. Denmark, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Portugal contributed to building the spacecraft but not to the science payload.
Additional information for media in the UK and Ireland:
The UK played a key role in development of the Solar Orbiter mission. The spacecraft was built by Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage. British scientists are involved in four out of the ten instruments aboard the spacecraft. Researchers from Imperial College London and the UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory (UCL MSSL) lead the teams behind Solar Orbiter’s Magnetometer (MAG) and Solar Wind Analyser (SWA) respectively. UCL also has a key role in the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI), which will enable the scientists to study processes on the Sun in greater detail than ever before. STFC RAL Space led the consortium that developed and built the extreme ultraviolet imaging spectrometer SPICE
UK Space Agency media contacts:
Gareth Bethell – UK Space Agency
In Ireland, ENBIO developed the black coating for the heat shield, an enabling technology for the mission.
For contributions from the other Member states, please refer to the translated version of the Call for Media here.
Members of the public can watch an online press briefing at https://www.esa.int/esawebtv on Thursday 16 July at 14:00 CEST (13:00 BST).
Among the speakers will be:
Daniel Müller – Solar Orbiter Project Scientist at ESA
Holly R. Gilbert – Solar Orbiter Project Scientist at NASA
David Berghmans – Royal Observatory of Belgium, Principal Investigator of the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI)
Sami Solanki – Director of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Principal Investigator of the Polarimetric and Helioseismic Imager (PHI)
Christopher J. Owen – Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, Principal Investigator of the Solar Wind Analyser (SWA)
Jose-Luis Pellon-Bailon – Solar Orbiter Deputy Spacecraft Operations Manager
Media representatives with valid press credentials should register via https://www.esa.int/Contact/mediaregistration by Wednesday 15 July 12:00 CEST.
Questions to the panel can be asked via email@example.com.
Solar Orbiter’s first images reveal ‘campfires’ on the Sun
The first images from Solar Orbiter, a new Sun-observing mission by ESA and NASA, have revealed omnipresent miniature solar flares, dubbed ‘campfires’, near the surface of our closest star.
According to the scientists behind the mission, seeing phenomena that were not observable in detail before hints at the enormous potential of Solar Orbiter, which has only just finished its early phase of technical verification known as commissioning.
“These are only the first images and we can already see interesting new phenomena,” says Daniel Müller, ESA’s Solar Orbiter Project Scientist. “We didn’t really expect such great results right from the start. We can also see how our ten scientific instruments complement each other, providing a holistic picture of the Sun and the surrounding environment.”
Solar Orbiter, launched on 10 February 2020, carries six remote-sensing instruments, or telescopes, that image the Sun and its surroundings, and four in situ instruments that monitor the environment around the spacecraft. By comparing the data from both sets of instruments, scientists will get insights into the generation of the solar wind, the stream of charged particles from the Sun that influences the entire Solar System.
The unique aspect of the Solar Orbiter mission is that no other spacecraft has been able to take images of the Sun’s surface from a closer distance.
Closest images of the Sun reveal new phenomena
The campfires shown in the first image set were captured by the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) from Solar Orbiter’s first perihelion, the point in its elliptical orbit closest to the Sun. At that time, the spacecraft was only 77 million km away from the Sun, about half the distance between Earth and the star.
“The campfires are little relatives of the solar flares that we can observe from Earth, million or billion times smaller,” says David Berghmans of the Royal Observatory of Belgium (ROB), Principal Investigator of the EUI instrument, which takes high-resolution images of the lower layers of the Sun’s atmosphere, known as the solar corona. “The Sun might look quiet at the first glance, but when we look in detail, we can see those miniature flares everywhere we look.”
The scientists do not know yet whether the campfires are just tiny versions of big flares, or whether they are driven by different mechanisms. There are, however, already theories that these miniature flares could be contributing to one of the most mysterious phenomena on the Sun, the coronal heating.
Unravelling the Sun’s mysteries
“These campfires are totally insignificant each by themselves, but summing up their effect all over the Sun, they might be the dominant contribution to the heating of the solar corona,” says Frédéric Auchère, of the Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale (IAS), France, Co-Principal Investigator of EUI.
The solar corona is the outermost layer of the Sun’s atmosphere that extends millions of kilometres into outer space. Its temperature is more than a million degrees Celsius, which is orders of magnitude hotter than the surface of the Sun, a ‘cool’ 5500 °C. After many decades of studies, the physical mechanisms that heat the corona are still not fully understood, but identifying them is considered the ‘holy grail’ of solar physics.
“It’s obviously way too early to tell but we hope that by connecting these observations with measurements from our other instruments that ‘feel’ the solar wind as it passes the spacecraft, we will eventually be able to answer some of these mysteries,” says Yannis Zouganelis, Solar Orbiter Deputy Project Scientist at ESA.
Seeing the far side of the Sun
The Polarimetric and Helioseismic Imager (PHI) is another cutting-edge instrument aboard Solar Orbiter. It makes high-resolution measurements of the magnetic field lines on the surface of the Sun. It is designed to monitor active regions on the Sun, areas with especially strong magnetic fields, which can give birth to solar flares.
During solar flares, the Sun releases bursts of energetic particles that enhance the solar wind that constantly emanates from the star into the surrounding space. When these particles interact with Earth’s magnetosphere, they can cause magnetic storms that can disrupt telecommunication networks and power grids on the ground.
“Right now, we are in the part of the 11-year solar cycle when the Sun is very quiet,” says Sami Solanki, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany, and PHI Principal Investigator. “But because Solar Orbiter is at a different angle to the Sun than Earth, we could actually see one active region that wasn’t observable from Earth. That is a first. We have never been able to measure the magnetic field at the back of the Sun.”
The magnetograms, showing how the strength of the solar magnetic field varies across the Sun’s surface, could be then compared with the measurements from the in situ instruments.
“The PHI instrument is measuring the magnetic field on the surface, we see structures in the Sun’s corona with EUI, but we also try to infer the magnetic field lines going out into the interplanetary medium, where Solar Orbiter is,” says Jose Carlos del Toro Iniesta, PHI Co-Principal Investigator, of Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía, Spain.
Catching the solar wind
The four in situ instruments on Solar Orbiter then characterise the magnetic field lines and solar wind as it passes the spacecraft.
Christopher Owen, of University College London Mullard Space Science Laboratory and Principal Investigator of the in situ Solar Wind Analyser, adds, “Using this information, we can estimate where on the Sun that particular part of the solar wind was emitted, and then use the full instrument set of the mission to reveal and understand the physical processes operating in the different regions on the Sun which lead to solar wind formation.”
“We are all really excited about these first images – but this is just the beginning,” adds Daniel. “Solar Orbiter has started a grand tour of the inner Solar System, and will get much closer to the Sun within less than two years. Ultimately, it will get as close as 42 million km, which is almost a quarter of the distance from Sun to Earth.”
“The first data are already demonstrating the power behind a successful collaboration between space agencies and the usefulness of a diverse set of images in unravelling some of the Sun’s mysteries,” comments Holly Gilbert, Director of the Heliophysics Science Division at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Solar Orbiter Project Scientist at NASA.
Solar Orbiter is a space mission of international collaboration between ESA and NASA. Nineteen ESA Member States (Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom), as well as NASA, contributed to the science payload and/or the spacecraft. The satellite was built by prime contractor Airbus Defence and Space in the UK.