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Spacecraft launches to explore the Sun

The UK-built Solar Orbiter spacecraft successfully launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida shortly after 4am today (Monday, 10 February).

The mission will take the most detailed images ever of the Sun and provide crucial information about how our star’s volatile activity affects its atmosphere. This knowledge will help improve predictions of space weather events, which can disrupt and damage satellites and infrastructure on Earth.

This has never been more important as the UK economy is increasingly reliant on space, with satellite services such as communications, navigation and Earth observation supporting wider industrial activities worth £300 billion.

Solar Orbiter will allow scientists to study our star in much more detail than previously possible and to observe specific features for longer periods than can be achieved by any spacecraft circling the Earth. The spacecraft’s orbit will also give unprecedented views towards the Sun’s poles.

The UK is at the heart of this European Space Agency (ESA) mission with UK industry winning £200 million worth of contracts and the UK Space Agency investing £20 million in the development and build of the instruments.

Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom said:

Solar storms could cause major disruptions to technologies including our energy grid, mobile phone signal and navigation systems.

This new mission demonstrates the UK’s leading role in the global space industry, while supporting our economy, creating jobs and helping establish the UK as a global science superpower.

Solar Orbiter will carry 10 state-of-the-art instruments. Remote sensing payloads will perform high-resolution imaging of the Sun’s atmosphere – the corona – as well as the solar disk. Other instruments will measure the solar wind and the solar magnetic fields in the vicinity of the spacecraft.

This will give us unprecedented insight into how the Sun works, and how we can better predict periods of stormy space weather, which are related to coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that the Sun throws towards Earth from time to time.

UK scientists were instrumental in proposing the Solar Orbiter mission to ESA. The UK Space Agency provided funding for four of the 10 scientific instruments on board. Imperial College London, UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory and the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s RAL Space led international teams to design and build three instruments while UCL are major contributors to a fourth.