The European Space Agency is counting down to the launch of its mission to the sun; a project that demonstrates the benefits of pan-continental cooperation in the immediate aftermath of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.
The agency, which is known as the ESA, says it has now nestled its “Solar Obiter” inside a protective shield and mounted it atop the rocket that will take it to the center of our solar system, making it launch-ready.
The 1.3-billion-pound ($1.7 billion) project that aims to uncover intricate details of the workings of the sun involves extensive input from several European nations and a contribution from the United States.
Ian Walters, the program manager for Solar Orbiter at Airbus, the pan-European aerospace manufacturer, told BBC News: “It’s an astonishing spacecraft. It’s got 10 instruments to study the sun.”
He said each instrument posed designers with unique challenges.
“Some want no dust contamination, some want a very clean magnetic environment, some want to be cold, some want to be hot. All these conflicting design drivers, we’ve been able to satisfy and deliver everything the scientists wanted.”
Airbus has spent the past decade steadily designing and assembling the satellite that, on Friday, was mounted on the United Launch Alliance Atlas rocket that will carry it to its destination.
The rocket is scheduled to blast off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral complex in the US late on Sunday evening, local time, which will be on Monday morning, European time.
While in orbit 42 million kilometers from the sun, the vessel will take very high resolution photographs of the surface of our nearest star, and attempt to measure the flow of charged particles and their magnetic fields, all from behind a heat shield that is designed to withstand temperatures of 500 C.
Gunther Hasinger, ESA’s director of science, told reporters: “We will probably unravel better the mechanism that is producing the magnetic field of the sun and is also producing these huge explosions that are a worry for all kinds of infrastructure in space.”
He said the powerful magnetic blasts from the sun, which are known as “solar weather”, can potentially disrupt missions to the moon and Mars and be dangerous for astronauts.
The UK played a major role in the ambitious project that will take the orbiter a maximum distance of 300 million kilometers from the Earth. The probe was assembled at the UK arm of Airbus and two of its 10 instruments were designed and built by UK-based teams. The UK, which continues to be a member of the ESA despite its exit from the EU, also invested 170 million pounds in the project.