China-ESA SMILE spacecraft to launch on Vega-C in 2021

Image courtesy of China's National Space Science Center, CAS.

Between October 10-12, scientists from China’s space programme and the European Space Agency (ESA) conducted a review of China-ESA joint mission SMILE. During the review, they confirmed that the SMILE spacecraft will be launched in 2021 on Arianespace’s upcoming Vega-C rocket, after choosing between the Soyuz, Ariane 6, and Vega-C.

The review took place at the European Aerospace Technology Center (ESTEC), where the mission requirements and systems were analyzed, ensuring they meet the mission’s scientific objectives – to study the Earth’s magnetosphere, and deepen our understanding of the Sun-Earth relationship.

SMILE (Solar-wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer) is the first mission since the early 1990s with such deep China-ESA collaboration, where both parties are jointly designing, implementing, launching, and operating a spacecraft together. SMILE was selected after ESA and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) issued a joint call for mission concepts in 2015, with a feasibility study beginning in 2016.

The SMILE spacecraft will have a liftoff mass of approximately 2,000kg, and will consist of a 3.15-m-high platform built by CAS, and a payload module designed by ESA for the Vega C. After launch, it will be placed in a highly-elliptical, inclined orbit (HEO), at a maximum height of 121,000 km above the Earth – nearly a third of the way to the Moon at apogee. From this vantage point, SMILE will be able to capture images of the boundary of the Earth’s magnetic field.

SMILE will carry four payloads – (a) a Soft X-ray Imager developed by the University of Leicester, UK, along with other institutions in Europe, (b) an UltraViolet Imager jointly developed by institutions in China, Belgium, and Canada, (c) a Light Ion Analyser by institutions in China and the UK, and (d) a Magnetometer by CAS and the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

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