Here Comes the Sun - Launching the Solar Orbiter

January 29, 2020

The Solar Orbiter, built by NASA and to which we contributed software, continues its groundbreaking journey towards our nearest star. Find out more about our involvement in this unprecedented mission.

satellite in solar orbiter

The Sun, our closest star, is one of the most mysterious celestial bodies in our solar system. We know very little about it. But all that is about to change!

Exciting times are coming as the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA join forces to launch the Solar Orbiter Mission and, as a result, provide answers to many of our Sun-related questions.

Ricardo Armas, our Space Business Development Director, explained some of the main aspects of this fascinating project with which Critical Software has been involved since 2013.

The Solar Orbiter Mission addresses a central question of heliophysics: how does the Sun create and control the giant bubble of magnetic fields around it – the heliosphere?

“It’s not yet clear how exactly the Sun’s magnetic field is generated or structured deep inside the Sun, though we do know intense magnetic fields around the poles drive variability to the Sun, causing solar flares and coronal mass ejections. The Solar Orbiter will hover over roughly the same region of the solar atmosphere for several days at a time while scientists watch tension build up and release around the poles. Those observations may lead to better awareness of the physical processes that ultimately generate the Sun’s magnetic field.”

The mission will take 3.5 years to reach its orbit and, once there, the Solar Orbiter will have an elliptical orbit around the Sun. It will be even closer than Mercury, coming as to ~25 million miles away from the Sun every five months.

This will be one of the toughest missions for a space exploration satellite, or as Ricardo puts it: “It is a fantastic challenge for spacecraft engineering teams across all disciplines, including systems AOCS, Central SW, Operations & FDIR, AIT, etc.”

Two of the biggest dangers the mission faces, according to Ricardo, are “periods of about 2.5 months without communications and the continuous threat of being burned if strict control fails – with error margins of 1º in the solar panels (differences between 500ºC in the part of the panels facing the Sun to -100ºC in the part facing the opposite direction).”

Critical Software’s role

The mission has been long and challenging. Since 2013, Critical Software has had a team of up to 5 engineers simultaneously working at Airbus UK in Stevenage.

Critical Software had played a fundamental role in the development of the various software systems, such as the central command and control system; the analysis and assessment of requirements; the fault detection, isolation and recovery system; and the thermal behaviour management software.

As Ricardo explains, “Critical Software usually works on the software activities of ESA missions. On Solar Orbiter, besides the typical responsibilities for the software team, we had responsibility over the systems team, namely as part of the functional avionics team. The functional avionics team is responsible for all the functional elements of the spacecraft, e.g. communication antennas, solar panels and other platform units, software, attitude orbit control system, database, etc. Critical Software, together with Airbus, worked on the system level definition of Solar Orbiter due to the know-how obtained during early stages of the project while working on the software team.”

The Solar Orbiter was launched on 10th February 2020 from Cape Canaveral, USA.