Spanish physicists support latest satellite mission

This mission marks a major milestone for Spanish space science.

Europe's Solar Orbiter (SolO) probe has taken-off on its quest to study the Sun from close proximity.

Developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, this sun-observing satellite was launched on Sunday, February 9, at 04:03 GMT (23:03 local time).

Scientists and engineers from across Spain played a major role in the development of the project.

Secured on-board the satellite are two key instruments that have been primarily designed and built by Spanish scientists and engineers. Significant collaboration between many Spanish physicists took place to construct these vital instruments to help gain more information about the Sun.  

An Energy Particle Detector (EPD) was designed and built under the leadership of the University of Alcalá, and a Polarimetric and Helioseismic System (PHI), was produced primarily by the Andalusian Institute of Astrophysics (CSIC). The Institute of Aerospace Technology, the universities of Valencia, Barcelona and the Polytechnic University of Madrid along with the Canary Islands Institute of Astrophysics also contributed to the construction of these important instruments. 

The Sun will occasionally eject billions of tonnes of matter and entangled magnetic fields that can disrupt activity on Earth. In their extreme, these types of storms can trip the electronics on satellites, interfere with radio communications and even knock out power grids.

Researchers are hoping that the information gathered from Solar Orbiter will improve the models used to forecast the worst of the Sun’s outbursts.

The mission has been more than 20 years in the making. Solar Orbiter is a flagship project of European Space Agency (ESA), but worked with input from its US counterpart and NASA.

SolO will be put on a path that takes it intermittently to within 42 million km (26 million miles) of the Sun's surface. Due to the extreme heat of the Sun, in order to survive, the probe will need to work from behind a large titanium shield.

Researchers remain unclear to exactly what they will see from Solar Orbiter, but the expectation is that it will detect signals of when the Sun's activity is about to change.

The level of Spanish leadership seen throughout this project development is significant because it has not been seen in other subsequent space missions, mainly down to complications caused by the economic crisis. This restricted the country’s ability to contribute to the European Space Agency for a number of years. 

Spain currently does not have its own national space agency to coordinate nationwide activities, meaning it is difficult to lead on large-scale projects. The Ministry of Science and Innovation is aware of the limitations facing scientists and it is hoped that a solution can be found in the near future as this decade is expected to be a very important one for advances in solar physics.

Katie Burt

Katie Burt

When not found with a laptop at my fingertips, it's likely I'll be running, swimming, attempting to cycle or seeking out decent coffee.

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