Rendering of the Vigil satellite

ESA and Airbus Collaborate on Vigil Satellite for Advanced Space Weather Monitoring

ESA signed a €340 million contract with Airbus to develop the Vigil satellite. This mission aims to enhance space weather forecasting by predicting solar storms

On Wednesday May 22, at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, ESA signed a contract with Airbus Defense & Space UK worth €340 million to develop a new satellite. Named Vigil, its mission will be space weather forecasting, and it will be capable of predicting solar storms and dangerous Solar activities.

The news is particularly timely if we consider the powerful solar storm that hit our planet at the beginning of May, the most intense ever recorded since 2003. This event allowed us to admire flares and splendid auroral activity, on the other hand, these are dangerous phenomena that cause instability in the electricity grid and interference in satellite and radio communications.

The signing of the contract: from left, the British minister Andrew Griffith, in the center Josef Aschbacher, Director General of ESA, on the right Patrick Wood, of Airbus UK. Credits: ESA
The signing of the Vigil contract: left, the British minister Andrew Griffith, in the center Josef Aschbacher, Director General of ESA, on the right Patrick Wood, of Airbus UK. Credits: ESA

Airbus will take care of the assembly, and the launch is scheduled for 2031. Vigil will continuously send real-time data on potentially harmful solar activity before it is detected on Earth. This data will allow engineers of satellites, electricity grids, and telecommunications systems to take the relevant protective countermeasures and give astronauts in orbit time to take security measures for personal health and the vital instruments present onboard the ISS.


The mission

Vigil will be positioned approximately 150 million kilometers from Earth, in a privileged observation point (Lagrangian point L5 of the Sun-Earth system) to monitor the space between our planet and the Sun. Vigil will be capable of identifying potential problematic regions on the rotating solar surface before they become visible from Earth. The main events it will predict will be:

  • Solar flares: intense flashes of radiation that travel at the speed of light.
  • Coronal mass ejections (CMEs): clouds of giant solar plasma laced with magnetic field lines, swept away from the Sun during strong, long-lasting filament eruptions and solar flares.
Explanatory overall vision. Credits: ESA
Explanatory overall vision for Vigil mission. Credits: ESA

“The data from Vigil at L5 will be combined with available data from the Sun-Earth line, resulting in more detailed and precise forecasts for our end users across many industries. This enables them to respond as early as possible to protect Earth’s infrastructure, satellites, inhabitants, and astronauts.”

— Alexi Glover, Space Weather Service Coordinator at ESA


The satellite

This innovative satellite will weigh over two tons, carrying six scientific instruments. Once built, it will be assembled and tested at the UK’s new National Satellite Test Facility. The satellite is expected to reach orbit aboard an Ariane-6 rocket.

Vigil’s payload will consist of the following instruments, each of which has been specifically developed for this mission, as they will have to withstand the critical conditions in which they will work:

  • Photospheric Magnetographic Imager (Germany), provided by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS). This instrument provides images that represent the magnetic field of the solar photosphere (i.e. the visible surface of the Sun).
  • Heliospheric imager (Italy, Belgium), Leonardo SpA/CSL, Belgium. This instrument provides cameras and visible light detectors to capture images of solar and interplanetary structures. The light scattered by particles in the solar wind gives valuable information on the density, speed, and direction of the solar wind and CMEs.
  • Plasma analyzer (UK), Mullard Space Science Lab. This instrument is designed to measure the properties of space plasma, an ionized gas composed of electrons, ions, and neutral particles, present in the space environment.
  • Magnetometer (United Kingdom/Austria), Imperial College London/IWF Graz, which allows the field components to be measured along three independent directions and only defines the magnetic field vector at the point where the measurement is made.
  • Extreme Ultraviolet (EUV) Imager “JEDI” (USA, NASA), monitors the activity in the chromosphere/ low corona of the Sun’s atmosphere, pointing out the enactive regions, coronal holes, and solar flares.


Similar projects for solar activity control

The United States is also involved in solar activity missions and will launch a satellite called Space Weather Follow On (SWFO) next year, with objectives similar to those of ESA with Vigil.

Rendering of SWFO-L1 Observatory mission. Credits: NASA
Rendering of SWFO-L1 Observatory mission. Credits: NASA

This is a deep-space mission operating in a Lissajous orbit at the Sun-Earth Lagrange 1 (L1) point, aiming to measure solar wind disturbances before they reach Earth. It will provide continuous real-time data with Earth of the sun’s corona and of the solar wind. The SWFO-L1 Observatory is a 5-year mission and is planned to launch on 31 March 2025 as a rideshare (secondary payload) with the NASA Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) on a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

SWFO Architecture. Credits: National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service
SWFO Architecture. Credits: National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service. Credits: NOAA

*Cover image credits: ESA


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Beatrice Romeo

Beatrice Romeo

Master student in Aerospace Engineering.
Ocean activist and kitesurfing athlete.

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