Airbus to build ESA’s next solar sentinel

The European Space Agency has just signed a new contract worth 340 million euros with Airbusand more specifically with its Defense and Space division, for the construction of a new satellite which will offer us a fairly unique point of view on our star.

The machine, named Vigil, will have the mission of informing researchers well in advance about the vagaries of solar weather. “ Vigil data will give us an unprecedented lead of 4 to 5 days to anticipate certain solar phenomena that travel towards Earth », explains Giuseppe Mandorlo, project manager at ESA. “ From its observation post, it can also determine much more precisely the speed, direction and chance of impact of coronal mass ejections. “, he specifies.

A sentinel against the whims of the Sun

These ejections are vast clouds of plasma trapped in magnetic bubbles ejected by the star during violent solar flares. When these torrents of charged particles collide with the Earth’s magnetosphere, we get what we call a solar storm. The majority of them have no perceptible effect on humans, who are protected by the planet’s magnetic field; they just produce pretty auroras.

But the most intense of them can have considerable effects on electrical systems and communications equipment. Recently, for example, they caused some localized radio blackouts. In extreme cases, the consequences can even be quite cataclysmic.as shown by the example of the Carrington Event in 1859 (see our article).

© ESA

Depending on their severity, estimates of associated damages range from several billion to 3 trillion euros for an event of magnitude comparable to that of the Carrington Event. “, warns Holger Krag, head of the space security program at ESA.

Right now, we have very few ways to defend ourselves. But with a sentinel like Vigil, we can at least have enough early warning to hope to protect essential infrastructure. This prophylactic approach will also be important for the future of space exploration.

Without warning, solar storms can cause serious health concerns for astronauts and their economic impact can be considerable, especially at a time when there is an increasing reliance on sensitive technologies for navigation, finance, aviation, energy and communications », specifies Krag.

Direction the Lagrange point L5

To carry out its mission, Vigil will settle at a Lagrange point in the Earth-Sun system. These are balance points where the gravitational forces of two massive celestial bodies – in this case, our planet and its star – perfectly compensate each other. In practice, this means that a spacecraft can settle there permanently while maintaining a fixed position in relation to the two objects.

©NASA

These orbital parking spaces, numbered from 1 to 5, are very useful for machines which must remain stable over long periods of time. The James Webb and Euclid telescopes, for example, are both parked at the Lagrange point L2, in the Earth’s shadow, to ensure the continuity of observations and communications, but above all to protect them from the Sun’s radiation which could pollute their images.

Vigil, on the other hand, will be positioned at the point L5, in the same orbit as the Earth around the Sun, but 1/6 turn upstream. The interest of this perch is that it will allowobserve certain regions of the star before they are visible from Earth.

The European elite is mobilizing

Once there, the Airbus machine will be able to rely on a fine arsenal of instruments designed by major European institutions. The Max Planck Institute in Germany, for example, will be responsible for designing a magnetometer specialized in analyzing the photosphere. Leonardo, a conglomerate that represents about 33% of the French-Italian joint venture Thales Alenia Space, will build a camera to analyze variations in the heliosphere.

Other British, Belgian, Austrian and American institutions will also be there. NASA and NOAA will provide two key instruments, respectively a coronagraph and a camera specializing in extreme ultraviolet radiation.

All of these instruments would be valuable right now, in a context where the Sun is on the verge of the peak of its activity cycle — a period when solar weather tends to be particularly capricious. Unfortunately, we will have to wait to benefit from it, since the launch is not planned before 2031. At least, this means that Vigil will undoubtedly be operational for the next solar maximum, scheduled for 2035. Let’s hope that our star will be kind to here there!

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