UK industry to build Solar Orbiter satellite

British industry will lead the production of Solar Orbiter (SolO), a spacecraft that will travel closer to the Sun than any satellite to date.

SolO will take pictures and measurements from inside the orbit of Mercury, to gain new insights on what drives the star’s dynamic behaviour.

The European Space Agency has signed a contract with Astrium UK to build the satellite, for a launch in 2017.

The deal is worth 300m euros (£245m), and the work will be done in Stevenage.

With an eye on history, the contract signatures on the legal paperwork were timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of UK activity in orbit.

Twenty-six April 1962 was the day Britain became a space-faring nation with the launch of the Ariel-1 satellite.

Esa director Alvaro Gimenez and Astrium executive Miranda Mills shook hands on the SolO project in London’s Science Museum, where a model of Ariel-1 is on display.

After launch, Solar Orbiter will take itself deep into the inner Solar System, flying as close as 42 million km from the Sun. This close proximity will require the spacecraft to carry a robust shield.

“Heat will be a huge problem,” says Dr Ralph Cordey, the head of science at Astrium UK.

“If it were not protected, the face of the spacecraft would get as hot as 500 degrees – which would be disastrous.

“We will use a thick heatshield to reduce the temperature within the spacecraft and its systems down to about room temperature so that all the electronics can operate comfortably.”

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