Atlas V to launch Europe’s next-generation sun explorer in 2017

by Chris Bergin

United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V has been selected as the rocket of choice by NASA’s Launch Service Program to loft a next-generation sun explorer called Solar Orbiter.  The first medium-class mission of the European Space Agency’s Cosmic Vision 2015-2025 program, Solar Orbiter will head uphill on the Atlas V via its Cape Canaveral SLC-41 launch complex in 2017.

Solar Orbiter:

The Solar Orbiter mission will investigate the connections and the coupling between the Sun and the heliosphere, a huge bubble in space created by the solar wind that extends far beyond our Solar System. It is through this wind that solar activity can cause auroras and disrupt satellite-based communication.

To get a close-up view of the Sun and to observe the solar wind before it becomes disrupted, Solar Orbiter will fly to within 45 million kilometres of the Sun, closer than Mercury. It will image the poles for the first time, helping us understand how the Sun generates its magnetic field.

The spacecraft is being built under contract by Astrium UK, following the signing of a 300 million Euro deal with ESA in 2012.

The new Solar Orbiter spacecraft will follow the heritage of the other European Sun explorers, including Europe’s own PROBA-2, along with spacecraft that include NASA involvement, such as Helios 1 and 2, Ulysses, and SOHO, providing data towards the ambitions tasked by ESA’s Cosmic Vision 2015-2025 programme.

Ten scientific instruments will be funded by the Member States of ESA and the United States, and developed by teams led by Principal Investigators from Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, the UK, and the US.

Z3For example, Thales Alenia Space Italy was awarded a contract by the Italian Space Agency to build the Metis (Multi Element Telescope for Imaging and Spectroscopy) instrument, in conjunction with the company CGS S.p.A. (Compagnia Generale per lo Spazio).

The company is already contributing one of the key spacecraft components, namely the heat shield that will protect the satellite and its instruments from temperatures up to 700 degrees C when the Solar Orbiter spacecraft reaches the minimum distance from the Sun.

NASA is providing a role with the mission, by contributing one full instrument and one sensor. They are also providing the means for the spacecraft to leave the planet, with an announcement from NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) confirming what many had thought was an obvious choice of rocket.

“We are honored that NASA has selected ULA to provide the launch service for this exciting science mission,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president of Atlas and Delta Programs.

“ULA has enjoyed a strong partnership with NASA and our highly reliable Atlas V vehicle has successfully launched numerous missions including Pluto New Horizons, Juno, Mars Science Lab and most recently the Maven mission to Mars.”


ULA added they hold a record of more than 75 satellites delivered to orbit that provide critical capabilities for troops in the field, aid meteorologists in tracking severe weather, enable personal device-based GPS navigation and unlock the mysteries of our solar system.

“Reliable launch, real-world benefits,” they noted on the release on Tuesday.

The Solar Orbiter mission is scheduled to launch in July 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. This mission will launch aboard an Atlas V 411 Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV), which includes a 4-meter diameter payload fairing and one solid rocket motor.

“With 43 successful missions spanning a decade of operational service, the commercially developed Atlas V is uniquely qualified to provide launch services for these critical science missions,” added Mr. Sponnick.

The highly respected Atlas V was recently the subject of a call for cancellation by Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, during a political hearing into the lucrative Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV)-class contracts.

Mr. Musk was deemed to be overplaying the Atlas V’s reliance on a Russian engine (RD-180), with ULA’s Michael Gass countering they have both a large amount of engine stock in the States, and the potential to build the engine domestically.

Tuesday’s announcement of a contract award for a launch three years away at least shows NASA LSP confidence in Atlas V’s medium term future.

(Images via ESA, ULA, Thales Alenia Space Italy and NASA)

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