Solar Orbiter takes Portuguese technology to Sun atmosphere

The next European Space Agency mission is aiming at the Sun. The Solar Orbiter, which has Portuguese technology onboard, will be launched next Sunday and is expected to do its first closest passage to the Sun in March 2022. Active Space, Deimos Engenharia and Critical Software are the Portuguese companies involved in the project.

In a bold move, the European Space Agency is preparing to unveil the Sun as never seen before. Solar Orbiter (SolO), a spacecraft with Portuguese technology, to be launched into Space on February 10th, will venture just 42 million km from our star. This is about as close as it is possible to go and still be able to image our flaming parent star without melting its instruments. The cameras onboard will peek through an upper-level shield produced to scatter heat — 13 times higher than the heat that reaches Earth — while keeping the rest of the satellite within a protective shadow.

The spacecraft will be close enough to take images of the surface of the star, including the poles, and will measure the properties of the environment in its proximity. An achievement made possible thanks to the thermal protection structures developed by the Portuguese SME Active Space Technologies. Also, Critical Software was responsible for developing, among others, the operating system that command and control the satellite, and Deimos Engenharia worked in the definition and implementation of the strategy to test the unique flight systems of SolO.

“Active Space manufactured the feed throughs – I would say they are titanium channels that allow light to go through the Heat Shield to the instruments, but without compromising thermal protection, so the instruments do not get too hot or even melt”, explains Ricardo Patrício, Business Development Manager of Active Space. These “channels” are assemblies of tubular structures about half a meter long made from titanium, with “obviously a high mechanical and optical precision and a very high tolerance to heat”.

The Portuguese company was also engaged in the tests of the prototype of the satellite. “We equipped the test prototype with all the models of the satellite instruments that went into the shaker to simulate the launch vibration and the accelerations experienced during launch”, explains Ricardo Patrício. The two projects, subcontracted by Airbus Defence and Space, represented a turnover between 1.8 to 2 million Euros and involved a team of ten specialised technicians.

Solar Orbiter aims to examine how the Sun creates and controls the heliosphere (the protective “bubble” of particulate and magnetic fields generated by the Sun), and the effects of solar activity on the heliosphere. The mission combines in-situ observations and remote sensing to obtain new information about solar activity and how flares produce electrically charged particles, which causes the solar wind and coronal magnetic field, and how the solar dynamo works.

The spacecraft will be subject to solar temperatures 13 times higher than those experienced by satellites orbiting the Earth. The success of the SolO probe is therefore dependent on the thermal protection developed by Airbus, in collaboration with, among others, the Portuguese company Active Space and the Irish company Enbio. The Irish scientists developed a new product called SolarBlack, a calcium phosphate preparation with outstanding heat absorption capabilities, that was applied to the probe’s thermal protection. This shield has 20 wafer-thin layers of titanium capable of withstanding temperatures up to 500ºC.

“The Portuguese involvement in the Solar Orbiter mission is another example of the skills that Portugal has developed over the years. Portuguese companies have the know-how to cooperate with largest systems integrators and deliver”, states the President of Portugal Space. Chiara Manfletti considers that “the commitment made by Portugal in the fields of space safety and space science at the last ESA Ministerial Council will develop this expertise even further”. “By subscribing nearly 103 million to ESA for the next years, Portugal is contributing to Portuguese companies winning new projects, developing even more know-how and conquering new markets.”

Solar storms could cost Europe 20.6 billion euros in 2024

But the only goal of the mission isn’t to fulfil the curiosity of scientists. In the long term, the answer to these questions will lead ESA to go beyond the limits of space technology and prepare for future space missions in extreme conditions. More importantly, it will help to predict and minimise the impacts of the so-called solar storms.

The solar wind, a constant flow of electrically charged particles that the Sun projects into the heliosphere and that reaches speeds of 800 kilometres per second, is one of the main objects of observation of Solar Orbiter. Another subject of analysis will be extraordinary events such as solar eruptions and coronal mass ejections (significant eruptions of ionised gas at high temperature from the Sun’s corona). Episodes that can have a substantial impact on life on Earth, as they might reach sensitive electrical systems. In case of an extreme event, satellite communications will be disrupted, global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) will crack, and power grids at national or international scales will fail.

There are several concrete examples: in 1989, a solar eruption caused a blackout in the Canadian power grid, leaving around six million people without power for nine hours. On July 14th, 2000, in what became known as the Bastille Day Incident, a solar explosion caused short circuits on satellites and affected radio communications.

A study conducted by ESA in 2016 predicts that such extreme solar events could cost the European economy some 20.6 billion euros in 2024. But this is the worst-case scenario, assuming that nothing will be done to avoid the impact of episodes like “solar storms”, explosions linked to disruptions in the Sun’s magnetic field.

Conscious of humanity’s dependence on sensitive electrical systems, and on the risks of adverse space climate, academics created a new field of research: space weather. On the long run, knowing in detail the functioning of the Sun should contribute to developing fundamental science that may lead to the creation of space weather prediction models and tools to predict and minimise these extraordinary incidents.

Portugal allocated 13.3 million Euro to the ESA’ Space Safety programme

Because of all the reasons mentioned above space weather is one of the topics of the Space Safety programme, central to ESA’s activity over the next five years. Member States subscribed investments of around 455 million Euro, with an essential Portuguese contribution. In November, at Space19+, ESA’s Ministerial Council, Portugal allocated 13.3 million Euro to the Space Safety programme, including two million for the Lagrange mission, which plans to place a spacecraft at the Lagrange Point 5 to function as early warning station for solar activity.

Solar Orbiter will be launched on February 10th from Cape Canaveral (Florida, USA). The 1.800 kilograms, and three meters high spacecraft, will be carried aboard an Atlas V411 rocket. The satellite will be initially launched towards Venus since it needs to take advantage of the planet’s gravity to place itself in the orbit that allows it to approach the Sun.

Now is time for Critical Software to enter the scene. “We are responsible for the development and validation of the central software, which manages all the equipment. We also support the avionics part with direct contact with the ESOC”, says Ricardo Armas, Business Development Manager from Critical Software.

Mauro Gameiro, Critical’s primary engineer and the architect of “the entire brain of the satellite”, goes into the details. The software developed by the Portuguese company assures that the spacecraft is always on its “correct path” and “guarantees that secondary instruments are working properly”, but also that “the entire fault detection system works correctly and reacts promptly”. Working at Critical Software since 2003, Mauro has spent the last seven years working in the United Kingdom for Airbus, the primary contractor of the Solar Orbiter.

It will take about two years for the spacecraft to get into position, and the first passage close to the Sun will happen in March 2022, being at that time about two-thirds of the distance from Earth to the Sun. From this time on, the mission will approach the star every six months, being at a distance of about 42 million kilometres. Not even Mercury, which is subject to temperatures of around 430 degrees Celsius, is so close to the Sun, being 58 million kilometres away.

Crucial to ensure that the satellite was ready to flight was the work of Deimos Engenharia. According to Nuno Silva, Senior Project Manager of Deimos, the company “played a central role in the definition of the strategy to test the unique flight systems of Solar Orbiter”. This included “highly sophisticated test benches, including high-fidelity real-time simulators and the actual spacecraft”. Having to test the complete avionics of the spacecraft, Nuno Silva and his team, ended up working with Critical Software, as they to tested the flight control and full onboard software, developed by Critical.

Furthermore, Deimos Engenharia managed the analysis and reporting of all these tests which were on the critical path for the launch of Solar Orbiter. “Tenths of tests and an even higher number of reports involving large teams were perfectly coordinated, achieving a key project milestone successfully on time to authorise the launch of the satellite: the Qualification and Acceptance Review”, explains Nuno Silva.

As for Nuno Ávila, director-general at Deimos Engenharia, working directly with Airbus Defence and Space, and not through ESA, meant that the contract estimated in 100 thousand Euros “is part of the multiplier effect of the money that Portugal subscribed to ESA programmes”, but mostly is “a great pride for Deimos, because we’ve been called to act in a critical moment of the project due to our unique skills”.

The Portuguese Space Agency – Portugal Space, is a private non-profit organisation, created by the Portuguese Government, in close collaboration with the Regional Government of the Azores. The main goal of Portugal Space is to execute the “Portugal Space 2030” strategy and promote and strength the space ecosystem and value chain in Portugal for the benefit of society and economy through a number of focus fields, namely Earth Observation, Telecommunication, Space Safety and Space Transportation, and to enable that, by 2030, Portugal is widely recognized as a global authority in the science and economy of Space-Earth Climate-Oceans interactions.

The company located in Coimbra manufactured titanium components for the deployable instrument boom, consists of a retractable boom carrying four instruments that are highly sensitive to magnetic fields. They also produced the titanium channels that support the top layer of the heat shield and that provide a Field of View to the instruments while protecting them from extreme temperatures, the so-called feedthroughs. Active Space was also involved in the tests of the prototype of the satellite. The design and the production of over 140 components are 100% Portuguese, even though around 90% of the manufacturing of some of the parts was subcontracted and then assembled and tested at Active Space. Active Space Technologies S.A. is an SME based in Coimbra with about 40 employees. It was founded in 2004, by Bruno Ramos de Carvalho and Ricardo Patrício, who met in an advanced training program at the European Space Agency in the Netherlands. The company focuses its activity on mechanisms, structures and monitoring systems for the aeronautical and aerospace industry, exporting over 90% of its production. It has participated in several space missions for ESA, JAXA (Japanese Space Agency), DLR (German Space Agency) and NASA.

Critical Software has designed several satellite software systems, such as central command and control, fault detection and recovery and thermal behaviour management systems. Established in 1998, Critical Software provides systems and software services for safety, mission and business-critical applications. Present in four countries, and with offices in nine cities, the Critical Software employs around 950 people. It offers solutions to several different industries.

Deimos Engenharia (Lisbon) define the strategy to test the flight systems of Solar Orbiter, and conducted the analysis and reporting of all these tests, critical for the launch of Solar Orbiter. Deimos Engenharia works in R&D, engineering and development of Space Systems. Since 2002, its knowledge has been equipping multiple European scientific missions of planetary exploration, earth observation, astrophysics and satellite navigation. DEIMOS Engenharia is composed of a multidisciplinary team of more than 50 highly qualified engineers and has an extensive portfolio of activities for ESA, NASA, EUMETSAT and commercial clients. The space technologies developed at Deimos are also applied in the sectors of transport, defence, oceanography, agriculture, environment, among others. Deimos Engenharia is the Portuguese subsidiary of Elecnor Deimos.


Portugal Space
9 of February, 2020