In space exploration, Switzerland punches above its weight

Solar Orbiter blasts off with Swiss telescope on board

A graphical representation of the Solar Orbiter (left) next to the NASA’s Parker Solar Probe which is already in mission mode. Solar Orbiter: ESA/ATG medialab; Parker Solar Probe: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

The European-American Solar Orbiter probe took off from Florida on Sunday night with a Swiss X-ray telescope on board to study the Sun close up. 

This content was published on February 10, 2020 - 11:12

The European Space Agency (ESA) probe successfully launched at 11.03pm (local time, Sunday/5.03am Monday, Swiss time) from Cape Canaveral in Florida. It was launched aboard an American rocket as part of a partnership with NASA.  

Ten scientific instruments (209 kilos of payload) are packed on the mission, which costs €1.5 billion (CHF1.6 billion). Over the next decade it will study particle-laden storms on the Sun that can cause breakdowns of technological infrastructure on Earth. 

After passing through the orbit of Venus and then Mercury, the satellite, whose maximum speed will reach 245,000 km/h, will travel as close as 42 million kilometres from the Sun, or less than a third of the distance between the Sun and Earth. 

One of the ten instruments on board is an X-ray telescope called STIX (Spectrometer Telescope for Imaging X-rays), built by the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern SwitzerlandExternal link. While experts from seven European countries contributed to STIX, more than half of the costs were covered by Switzerland, making it a Swiss-led project. Other Swiss contributors were the Paul Scherrer InstituteExternal link and industrial partner AlmatechExternal link

STIX will analyse high-energy X-rays, which are only produced at very high temperatures. By combining STIX's results with those of the other instruments, scientists hope to get a very accurate picture of the enormous energy released by the Sun. 

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