ESA selects Airbus to build its space weather satellite

Airbus has been selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) to design and build its Vigil satellite, which will monitor space weather and protect Earth from potential solar storms.

Artist's impression of the Vigil space weather satellite
Artist's impression of the Vigil space weather satellite - Airbus

The space weather forecasting satellite will give extra warning to Earth about incoming solar storms and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) which can potentially disrupt satellites in orbit and electronic and power distribution systems on Earth.

Vigil, the first operational mission in ESA’s Space Situational Awareness (SSA) Space Safety Programme (S2P), will be positioned at Lagrange point L5 on the same orbit as the Earth, 150 million km behind it as the Earth orbits the Sun.

This vantage point will enable Vigil to see the Sun as it rotates, and see the size and speed of solar weather heading towards the Earth. ESA said that data from Vigil could provide notice of four to five days of solar winds streaming toward Earth.

Among the most potentially damaging events are coronal mass ejections (CMEs) from the Sun, consisting of a magnetised plasma containing protons, electrons and other charged particles. In 1989, a major geomagnetic storm struck Earth and caused a nine-hour outage of electricity transmission across Quebec.

Advance warning of incoming CME will enable power companies and authorities to temporarily shut down systems to protect them from power surges and ensure they can be powered up quickly after the danger has passed. This will avoid longer power outages and major damage to electronic systems used for global positioning and communication services.

Vigil, which will be built in the UK, will include a compact coronagraph developed by the US Naval Research Laboratory, a heliographic imager from Florence-based Leonardo SpA and a photo-magnetospheric field Imager from Germany’s Max Planck Institute.

In addition, Vigil will carry a plasma analyser from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory in London and a magnetometer from Imperial College London. NASA is providing Vigil’s sixth instrument, an extreme ultraviolet imager.

In a statement, Andrew Griffith MP, minister for space at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, said: “Space weather generates stunning phenomena like the recent displays of the Northern lights over our skies - but it also presents a real risk to our way of life which is increasingly dependent on space and satellite services.

“The Vigil mission will transform our understanding of the impact of potentially dangerous solar events and I congratulate Airbus here in the UK on taking the lead in this important mission.”

Vigil was selected by ESA in 2022 and is supported by the UK Space Agency and other member states of ESA. The UK’s Met Office has a dedicated space weather forecasting department which will use the data from Vigil to offer the world more accurate forecasts.

Vigil, due to be launched in 2031, will be the first ESA spacecraft to be positioned at L5 and is designed to operate in orbit for over 7.5 years.