Airbus UK to Construct Vigil Satellite for Monitoring Solar Storms

Airbus UK to Construct Vigil Satellite for Monitoring Solar Storms

British engineers will lead the development of a new satellite to monitor the Sun for the energetic outbursts it sends towards Earth. The announcement of Vigil, as the spacecraft will be known, is timely following the major solar storm that hit our planet earlier this month. The event, the biggest in 20 years, produced bright auroral lights in skies across the world. Airbus UK will assemble Vigil and make it ready for launch in 2031.

Vigil will be sent to an observing position some 150 million km (93 million miles) from Earth so it can more easily view the gap between our planet and the Sun. In this way, it will get a unique perspective on solar flares – the intense flashes of radiation that travel at the speed of light and can degrade communications and navigation systems, as well as coronal mass ejections (CMEs) – surges of charged particles, interlaced with magnetic fields, that can damage infrastructure, such as power grids.

Today, nearly all the information about this “space weather” comes from satellites that look at the Sun head-on. From its special vantage point, Vigil will be able to see potentially problematic regions on the rotating solar surface before they come into view of Earth. This will give us three to four days additional warning and increase our confidence in predicting solar flares and CMEs.

The UK has been pushing for a number of years to get its European partners to agree to the Vigil mission. The existing satellite fleet is ageing and is in urgent need of an overhaul. The Americans are also part of this renewal push and will be launching a satellite next year called Space Weather Follow On (SWFO) that will complement Vigil’s observations.

No serious problems were reported from the recent geomagnetic storm in May, thanks to improved forecasting capabilities. Vigil will weigh just over two tonnes fully fuelled and carry a total of six instruments. It is expected to be tested at the UK’s new National Satellite Test Facility before being launched into orbit on an Ariane-6 rocket.

The Vigil contract was one of several exciting announcements made at the European space council in Brussels, including agreements with The Exploration Company and Thales Alenia Space to develop a space capsule for the ISS. Esa also named the first individuals from Europe’s latest astronaut intake to fly to the ISS, including French helicopter test pilot Sophie Adenot and Belgian biomedical engineer Raphaël Liégeois. Adenot will be the first to fly, with each astronaut spending six months on the orbiting platform.