Why Solar Orbiter’s mission is vital for our digital future

Posted on: February 10, 2020 by Hans-Martin Steiner

Earth has plunged into darkness. Power grids are knocked out. Electronics are disrupted. Electrical appliances are dead. Communications are down. The cause of this catastrophe? A solar storm. Highly energized charged particles ejected from the sun have entered and disrupted the Earth’s electromagnetic field.

It could happen – and did in 1859. But electricity was just in its infancy 160 years ago. The impact of the solar storm was therefore only small. If a similar storm occurred today, it would result in a major disaster.

So, to avoid any solar activity causing a catastrophe here on Earth, we need a better understanding of how the sun works. We’ll then be able to forecast solar storms and, hopefully, mitigate their impact.

Together, the European Space Agency (ESA) with strong participation from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the US are embarking on a mission that will take a significant step toward gathering data and images needed. Today, NASA launches the Solar Orbiter spacecraft from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida – and we are proud to be part of this mission.

So, what is Solar Orbiter’s mission, and what role does Atos play on such an important exploration of our Solar System?

Understanding solar storms

Built by a consortium of about 40 European companies led by Airbus Defence and Space UK, Solar Orbiter will spend the next decade studying the sun close-up from a distance of around 42 million kilometers. The ten instruments onboard will primarily measure the behavior of the sun’s plasma and magnetic fields to help us understand how the eruptions seen during solar storms occur.

In addition to exploring the solar environment, the instruments will also measure and photograph the solar poles from high latitudes – something that has never been done before.

The mission also hopes to reveal, where the corona around the sun gets its energy from. While the sun has a surface temperature of between 5,500 °C and 6,000 °C, the corona has a temperature of a whopping 1 million °C. How and why the corona is so much hotter than the sun is currently a mystery.

A challenging mission

As you can image, building a spacecraft for studying the sun close-up was quite a challenge. Solar Orbiter firstly needs to be able to withstand intense temperatures. It must also reach the specific orbit needed to provide a view of both poles.

In terms of the intense temperatures close to the sun, Solar Orbiter’s heat shield will have to withstand temperatures of more than 500 °C. At the same time, the spacecraft’s fuel tanks and the shaded parts, which will be facing out into space, must endure temperatures of around -180 °C. Ensuring the Sun won’t grill the instruments while taking care that the on-board fuel at the other end won’t freeze was quite a challenge for the designers.

Establishing the 33° orbit needed to observe both solar poles was the second major challenge – and it will take a lot of time and energy for Solar Orbiter to get there. The time from launch date to reach the operational orbit will be 7 years.

The spacecraft may reach up to 33° in the subsequent extended phase of the mission. The spacecraft will use the planets to gain the incredible amount of energy needed to take it out of the ecliptic plane of the Solar System and into a polar sun orbit. Ten gravity assist flybys of Venus and one of Earth will provide it with the energy kick it needs.

It will be 2030 before we get the full data and images from the solar poles, but the insights gained will be invaluable. As our lives become increasingly dependent on digital, understanding the behavior of the sun’s plasma and magnetic fields – and how the eruptions seen during solar storms occur – is essential, if we are going to ensure that activity on the sun doesn’t plunge Earth into darkness.

You’ll have to read my next blog to discover our role on the mission. I’ll talk you through some of the things we provided.

Banner: “The solar orbiter spacecraft near the sun” © Image courtesy of ESA

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About Hans-Martin Steiner
CTO Space & Avionics
Hans Martin Steiner is currently CTO of Space & Avionics at Atos IT Solutions and Services GmbH Austria and as such responsible for the global product and solution portfolio of the space and avionics business activities of the multi-national Atos company. Hans is a Computer Scientist by education. His professional career started in the late eighties in the telecom sector. Soon after he switched to the newly formed Space Business Unit of Siemens. He had various management posts at Siemens in the space domain, particularly, he was several years on-site manager of Siemens space activities at ESA/ESRIN in Frascati/Rome. In 2007 he took over the position as Director of Siemens Space and in 2013 he became Vice President of Siemens Space. At the same time Siemens Space and other units were carved out of Siemens to become Siemens Convergence Creators, a 100% subsidiary of Siemens. In 2018, after the acquisition of Siemens Convergence Creators by the Atos Group, Hans assumed his current CTO position. Hans is Managing Director of Austrospace, the Association of Austrian Space Industries, as well as a member of the Advisory Board of the Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG).

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