ESA’s mission to the Sun has been unpacked following its arrival in Florida earlier this month, ready to begin pre-launch testing and checks.
The mission is currently scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral launch complex late in the evening of 5 February U.S. time (early morning 6 February central European time) on an unprecedented mission to study our star up-close.
An Antonov cargo plane transported the spacecraft and essential ground support equipment from Munich, Germany, to Florida, landing at the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Centre on 1 November. From there the satellite and equipment travelled by road to the AstroTech Space Operations facility. The first weeks were dedicated to setting up the equipment that will be needed to perform the upcoming checks and tests on the spacecraft. This will include repeated simplified tests of the spacecraft and science instruments so that the functioning of the various systems is confirmed as it was before the long flight, and checking of the propellant pressurisation system pressure before eventually fueling the spacecraft.
In the new year attention will shift to mating the spacecraft with the launch adapter and encapsulating the spacecraft inside the fairing. In the final stages of preparation, the spacecraft will be mounted atop the Atlas V 411 rocket and moved to the launch pad ready for liftoff.
Once in space, and over the course of several years, the spacecraft will repeatedly use the gravity of Venus and Earth to raise its orbit above the poles of the Sun, providing new perspectives on our star, including the first images of the Sun’s polar regions. Its complementary suite of instruments means it will be able to study the plasma environment locally around the spacecraft and collect data from the Sun from afar, connecting the dots between the Sun’s activity and the space environment in the inner Solar System, which is essential to understand the effects of space weather at Earth.
Solar Orbiter is an ESA mission with strong NASA participation. The prime contractor is Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage, UK. The mission will provide complementary datasets to NASA’s Parker Solar Probe that will allow more science to be distilled from the two missions than either could achieve on their own.