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Atlas 5 rocket selected for Solar Orbiter launch

Posted: March 18, 2014

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket will launch the European-built Solar Orbiter mission from Cape Canaveral in July 2017, NASA announced Tuesday.

File photo of an Atlas 5 rocket in the same configuration to be used for the launch of Solar Orbiter. Photo credit: Pat Corkery/Lockheed Martin
NASA is responsible for procuring the launch vehicle for Solar Orbiter, which will study how the sun generates and controls the heliosphere, the giant teardrop-shaped bubble encapsulating the solar system blown out by the solar wind.

According to a NASA statement, the launch cost is approximately $172.7 million. NASA says the cost includes the launch service, spacecraft processing, payload integration, tracking data and telemetry, and other launch support requirements.

"We are honored that NASA has selected ULA to provide the launch service for this exciting science mission," said Jim Sponnick, ULA's vice president of Atlas and Delta programs. "ULA has enjoyed a strong partnership with NASA and our highly reliable Atlas 5 vehicle has successfully launched numerous missions including Pluto New Horizons, Juno, Mars Science Lab and most recently the MAVEN mission to Mars."

Solar Orbiter will launch on the "411" configuration of the Atlas 5, which includes a four-meter-diameter payload fairing, one strap-on solid booster supplied by Aerojet Rocketdyne, and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.

Liftoff is scheduled for July 2017 from United Launch Alliance's Complex 41 launch facility at Cape Canaveral.

Solar Orbiter will fly inside the orbit of Mercury, becoming the first spacecraft to approach so close to the sun.

After launch in 2017, Solar Orbiter will fly by Earth and Venus for slingshot gravity assist maneuvers to spiral closer to the sun. The probe's will fly as close as 26 million miles from the sun, less than one-third the average distance of Earth.

Artist's concept of the Solar Orbiter spacecraft. Photo credit: ESA
The 1,800-kilogram, or 3,968-pound, probe will reach its science orbit in 2020. Subsequent flybys of Venus will gradually alter Solar Orbiter's trajectory to move closer to the sun's poles through the 2020s, obtaining the first remote sensing imagery of the sun's highest latitudes, according to ESA.

The mission will last at least seven years.

NASA's Solar Probe Plus mission will blast off in 2018 and reach a perch even closer to the sun - just 3.7 million miles - in 2024.

The project is expected to cost around $1.1 billion, including a nearly $700 million budget from the European Space Agency to develop and operate the mission, $376 million from NASA to pay for the Atlas 5 launcher and two instruments, and contributions from ESA member states for the rest of the probe's science payloads.

Solar Orbiter is the mission to launch in ESA's Cosmic Vision program. It is classified as a medium-class mission in ESA's program architecture.

Solar Orbiter's mix of in situ and remote sensing instruments will sample the solar wind just after it is released from the sun, combining those measurements with images of the sun's corona and solar atmosphere in search of the mechanisms driving the phenomena.

The spacecraft will be assembled by Airbus Defence and Space in the United Kingdom, placing Solar Orbiter among the largest ESA scientific research spacecraft ever built in Britain.

"It's new for us in working on the leadership of a spacecraft for the ESA science program," said Ralph Cordey, head of science at the Airbus satellite manufacturing plant in Stevenage, about 30 miles north of London. "It's been quite a long time since there has been complete responsibility for as big of a spacecraft as Solar Orbiter."

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.