Mission To The Sun: UK Space Agency Makes £11.5m Investment In Solar Orbiter

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The mission will launch in 2017 | ESA

The UK Space Agency (UKSA) will invest £11.5m in a mission to go closer to the Sun than ever before and study its surface.

The British-built Solar Orbiter will be launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2017 as the first mission of its 'Cosmic Vision' programme.

The funding for four of its 10 instruments will be provided by several British institutions, the UKSA said in a statement.

The mission itself will attempt to discover how aspects of the Sun work - including how it creates and controls the 'heliosphere', which is the name given to the area of space covered by solar particles.

Solar Orbiter will fly to within 42 million km of the Sun - about 62% of the distance from Earth - to provide the closest view ever provided of its surface.

The instruments on board the orbiter will send back data about how its magnetic fields work and the make up of its surface.

UKSA says the return on investment could be "exceptionally high".

The plan will be subject to the next spending review, but if successful it could result in fresh business for British aerospace.

Dr Chris Castelli, Head of Space Science at the UK Space Agency, said:

"The instruments are being produced with a great deal of expertise and will provide exciting new data to further our understanding of the nature of stars and of our small corner of the universe.

"It represents a great return on UK investment into the ESA Cosmic Vision science programme, and will enable us to maintain our position as a leader in space science within Europe."

The institutions involved are Imperial College London, the Science Technology Facilities Council’s RAL Space and UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory.

The instruments we will build are:

  • Magnetometer (MAG) - will have two sensors located on a deployable boom in the shadow of the spacecraft, i.e. away from the Sun, enabling it to sample the magnetic field in situ and providing important diagnostic information. Imperial College London will lead the development of this instrument.
  • Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) - will be a suite of imaging telescopes that will provide images of the hot and cold layers of the solar atmosphere and of the solar corona showing the dynamics in fine detail and providing the link between the solar surface and outer corona. MSSL of the University College London is a Co-Investigator for this instrument.
  • Spectral Imaging of the Coronal Environment (SPICE) - is a telescope with a grating spectrograph and two active pixel sensor detectors that will provide images of the solar disk and corona. SPICE will be able to study features both on the surface and out in the corona and to look at the connection between them. RAL Space (based at the Science Technology Facilities Council’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory) is a Co-Investigator for this instrument.
  • Solar Wind Analyser (SWA) - will use three components to measure the different elements of the solar wind and characterise their behaviour under different solar conditions. MSSL of the University College London will lead the development of this instrument suite.