Setting sun on space station solar research

February 16, 2017, European Space Agency
Backdropped by the blackness of space and the thin line of Earth's atmosphere, the International Space Station is seen from Space Shuttle Discovery as the two spacecraft begin their relative separation. Earlier the STS-119 and Expedition 18 crews concluded 9 days, 20 hours and 10 minutes of cooperative work onboard the shuttle and station. Undocking of the two spacecraft occurred at 2:53 p.m. (CDT) on March 25, 2009. Credit: NASA/ESA

Today, ground control in Belgium switched off a package that had been continuously watching the Sun from the International Space Station for nine years.

'Solar' has been measuring most of the radiation emitted by our closest star across the . Built to run for only 18 months, it was still working until today – exceeding all expectations.

Solar's observations are improving our understanding of the Sun and allowing scientists to create accurate computer models and predict its behaviour.

To predict how the Sun behaves, scientists create complex computer models to build a virtual star. With more observations, scientists can fine-tune their models. Modelling and predicting the Sun's activity with precision is an important step towards understanding humankind's effect on Earth's climate.

Between 2012 and 2016, the Space Station turned itself five times to position Solar so that it could track the Sun without interruption for a complete solar day – around a month of Earth days.

It was the first time the Station changed attitude for scientific reasons alone and a huge achievement – it's not every day that you move a 450 tonne orbital outpost.

Today, Solar was moved to a parked position where it was secured with a pin. Even during its last days, Solar was delivering important data.

ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet’s message from the International Space Station for the day ESA’s Sun monitor ‘Solar’ was turned off after almost 10 years of service. Credit: ESA/NASA

The teams at the control centre in Brussels, Belgium, used the final moments to stress the hardware to its limits and gain a better understanding of how the observations have been affected by age and the intense changes in temperature it endures outside the Station. Using this extra information, researchers are developing software that will improve calibration of parts of the data.

ESA's project leader, Astrid Orr, comments, "After all these years of gaining valuable information about our Sun it is an emotional moment for the team, but Solar has far exceeded everyone's expectations."

"This kind of research does not deliver pretty pictures, but numbers. I tip my hat to the researchers who patiently sort through the wealth of data – this field of science may seem tedious and unexciting to the outside world, but climate studies heavily rely on these data to understand the world we live in and how we are shaping it."

Solar on the ISS Columbus module. Credit: ESA

Space Station Mercury. Credit: European Space Agency

Explore further: International Space Station salutes the Sun

Related Stories

International Space Station salutes the Sun

November 29, 2012

(—This weekend the International Space Station will turn itself to position ESA's SOLAR instrument for a better view of the Sun. It will be the first time the Station has changed attitude for scientific reasons ...

Space station gets an attitude adjustment for solar science

July 2, 2013

The sun lightens our world and enlightens our scientists as they look to our closest star for a better understanding of solar activity and what it means for our planet. Unique data from solar studies help researchers build ...

Image: Voyage around Earth

May 17, 2016

ESA astronaut Tim Peake took this picture from the International Space Station and commented: "Today the International Space Station completed its 100 000th orbit of our beautiful planet Earth! An amazing feat of science, ...

Recommended for you

Is dark matter made of primordial black holes?

April 20, 2018

Astronomers studying the motions of galaxies and the character of the cosmic microwave background radiation came to realize in the last century that most of the matter in the universe was not visible. About 84 percent of ...

NASA engineers dream big with small spacecraft

April 20, 2018

Many of NASA's most iconic spacecraft towered over the engineers who built them: think Voyagers 1 and 2, Cassini or Galileo—all large machines that could measure up to a school bus.

Unveiling the secrets of the Milky Way galaxy

April 20, 2018

A multinational team of astronomers involving the University of Adelaide has catalogued over 70 sources of very high energy gamma rays, including 16 previously undiscovered ones, in a survey of the Milky Way using gamma ray ...

Where is the universe's missing matter?

April 19, 2018

Astronomers using ESA's XMM-Newton space observatory have probed the gas-filled haloes around galaxies in a quest to find 'missing' matter thought to reside there, but have come up empty-handed – so where is it?


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.