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Image of Ian Walters Cape Canaveral Mission Control
Ian Walters, Cape Canaveral Mission Control, February 2020

Jesuan leads design and construction on Solar Orbiter

After a long career in the aerospace industry, including roles on several spacecraft projects, Ian Walters (1979) has led the project to design and construct the newly launched Solar Orbiter spacecraft.

The UK built spacecraft was successfully launched on 10 February from Cape Canaveral.  

Solar Orbiter is a spacecraft built by the European Space Agency and NASA to study the sun at very close quarters. It will fly to within 42 million km of the surface, closer than Mercury, where the heat from the sun is thirteen times that on Earth - with temperatures up to 600°C. Solar Orbiter is taking 10 instruments built by hundreds of scientists across Europe and the US to study the sun and the solar wind, so it is really a flying laboratory!

Our understanding of how stars work is still in its infancy: we do not know why solar activity has an eleven year cycle, where or how the solar wind is generated, why the atmosphere of the sun is many hundreds of times hotter than the surface, how or where the sun generates  its magnetic field, and we cannot predict when or where solar plasma eruptions (also called coronal mass ejections or CMEs) happen and if they might travel towards the Earth, or not. CMEs are a potential threat to our planet and our prediction of “space weather” is still only at the level Earth weather forecasting was in the 1930s.

Solar Orbiter is designed to answer all these questions and more. Two instruments are supplied by UK-led consortia: the magnetometer from Imperial College and the Solar Wind Analyser from Queen Mary, London.  The spacecraft itself was designed and built by Airbus in Stevenage, tested in Munich and launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida.  A scientific spacecraft of this size and complexity, with total mission cost around 1.5 billion euro, is a first for the UK.  The UK Space Agency describes Solar Orbiter as the most important UK space science mission for a generation.

Hear from Ian in a recent Youtube clip of a NASA press conference describing what happens to the spacecraft immediately after launch.


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