Two space missions set to go ahead with UK involvement

Two major new space missions with significant UK involvement have been given the go-ahead.

The missions, Solar Orbiter and Euclid, are part of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Cosmic Vision programme and were originally selected from more than 50 missions.

Due for launch between 2017 and 2019, Solar Orbiter and Euclid are expected to unlock the secrets of the Sun and help further understanding of dark energy respectively.

The UK is playing a major role in the design of Solar Orbiter as Stevenage-based EADS Astrium is leading the industrial study. UK scientists from University College London (UCL), Imperial College London and STFC Rutherford Laboratory are involved in four out of the 10 instruments for deployment on the spacecraft to study the Sun.

Solar Orbiter is designed to travel closer to our own star than any previous Sun-watching mission. It will carry out in-depth studies of the connections between the Sun and interplanetary space.

The spacecraft will travel up to the Sun’s higher latitudes using an elliptical orbit to image, for the first time ever, the polar regions of our star. This special path will also allow Solar Orbiter to keep pace with the Sun’s rotation so that it can track specific features below it for several weeks at a time.

Prof Tim Horbury, principal investigator for the spacecraft’s magnetometer from Imperial College London, said: ‘It will give us our first good view of the Sun’s polar regions and by travelling closer in than Mercury, it will give us a unique close-up view of the Sun’s atmosphere and how it blows off into space, past the Earth and into the far solar system.’

The design of the spacecraft will allow it to withstand the scorching heat on the surface facing the Sun and the cold of space on the opposite surface, which would always remain in shadow.

The Euclid mission, which has to complete its study phase before it can be fully adopted by ESA in June 2012, will address key questions relevant to fundamental physics and cosmology, and hopefully reveal the nature of the mysterious dark energy and dark matter.

At the heart of Euclid is an optical digital camera that is said to be one of the largest put into space.

‘This camera can take pictures of the sky more than 100 times larger than Hubble can,’ said Prof Mark Cropper of Mullard Space Science Lab, UCL, who is project scientist for the VIS camera. ‘Each VIS frame is the equivalent of nearly 300 HDTV screens, and one arrives every 15 minutes. It will image half of the sky in six years, reaching out to the distant parts of the Universe.’

Euclid and the VIS instrument will effectively look back in time approximately 10 billion years, covering the period over which dark energy seems to have accelerated the expansion of the Universe, and capture the light from distant galaxies to map their distribution and reveal the underlying ‘dark’ architecture of the cosmos.