Airbus has designed and built some of the most advanced space research missions ever launched. Our reach and expertise let us tackle daunting engineering challenges to make these unprecedented scientific endeavours possible.
By developing innovative technologies, Airbus has helped space agencies unlock new understanding.
Solar Orbiter: Campfires on the sun
On 30 May 2020, the Solar Orbiter spacecraft took the closest images ever captured of our Sun, revealing that its surface is covered in miniature flaring eruptions called ‘campfires,’ which had been hypothesised, but never confirmed until now.
It’s the first scientific discovery of a ground-breaking eight-year mission to advance understanding of our closest star.
Solar Orbiter was designed and built by Airbus in the UK. Orbiting incredibly close to the sun, the spacecraft is combining in-situ and remote sensing observations to collect data on solar particles, the solar wind, solar flares and the Sun’s magnetic field. By changing its orbit, it will capture detail on the Sun’s magnetic poles for the first time in history. And it is doing all this while braving immense heat and blinding light, every hour of every day.
To make such a mission possible, Airbus had to solve some pretty formidable engineering challenges. One of the biggest was creating a heat shield that could cope with extreme temperatures while keeping instruments cool. The shield the Airbus team developed is so effective that, even though it is only 25cm thick, the back remains at 100C or lower even when the front reaches 500 degrees Celsius.
We also developed a system to let the Solar Orbiter’s instruments peek out from behind this shield to ‘look’ at the Sun. The system combined the properties of three advanced materials, some developed specifically for the mission, to create a set of radiators on the side of the spacecraft that can quickly transfer heat away from the instruments into space. The Stand-Off Radiator Assembly uses thermal straps made from pyrolytic graphite, which is five times more conductive than copper wire, but flexible like paper.
Finally, Solar Orbiter has to balance the needs of ten different sensing instruments with conflicting requirements. To give two examples, the spacecraft’s electronics generate electromagnetic fields which interfere with instruments measuring magnetism and there is one sensor that needs almost perfect darkness to operate… while flying directly towards the Sun. The team came up with smart solutions to balance the needs of every instrument, meaning Solar Orbiter is able to utilise all ten in tandem to create a unique cause-and-effect picture of how the Sun works as a system.