The Sun in Close-up "Solar Orbiter" with computer technology from Braunschweig shortly before launch
Preparations for the launch of the European sun explorer “Solar Orbiter” are in full swing. On 10 February 2020 at 05:03 a.m. CET (Updates), the ESA spacecraft is to be launched on a carrier rocket from Cape Canaveral Spaceport in the USA. The scientific goal of the mission is to study the sun and its heliosphere at close range. The Technische Universität Braunschweig has developed an instrument computer for this mission which is equipped with a function that is new in European space missions.
It is planned to launch “Solar Orbiter” with an Atlas V rocket from Launch Complex 41 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The spacecraft, which weighs around 1,800 kilograms, will then begin its journey into an orbit around the sun. During the course of its mission, its trajectory will be tilted out of the plane to provide images and scientific data from the polar regions of the sun for the first time.
Among the ten instruments on board is the “Polarimetric and Helioseismic Imager” (PHI), which was developed in an international cooperation under the direction of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Göttingen with contributions from Germany, Spain and France. It is a camera-based instrument, through whose images, among other things, conclusions can be drawn about the magnetic field of the solar surface. A crucial point here is the enormous amount of data generated by the underlying image recordings. Since only a small amount of data can be transmitted to earth, essential calculations must already take place on board the spacecraft in order to reduce the amount of data.
Especially for this purpose, scientists at the Institute of Computer and Network Engineering (IDA) of the TU Braunschweig developed a powerful instrument computer with an integrated memory system of 512 gigabytes. The special feature of this computer is that the computer’s hardware can be reconfigured at any time in-flight using microchips whose contents can be loaded. This allows the very complex algorithms for data processing in the instrument to be adapted as required. A computer configurable in this way is a novelty in use on a European mission.