Professor Richard Harrison reflects on solar science
27 Feb 2020



Through an active programme of mission conception, acquisition, development and operation, RAL Space has been at the forefront of studies of the Sun for decades.


​​​​​​​​​​​Professor Richard Harrison - Solar Orbiter Interview


In the early 1960’s the first space-borne instruments from one of the pioneering groups that ultimately became RAL Space, were launched aboard suborbital rockets. These were instruments sent into space to study the nature of the Sun using unique ultraviolet techniques. Some 57 years later, we are poised to launch Solar Orbiter – an ESA mission carrying a novel RAL Space-led spectrometer called SPICE, whose heritage can be traced directly back to those original rocket flight instruments. 

I came to RAL Space in 1986 and find it incredible to believe that my 33 years here (so far) spans well over half of the time back to those original flights. When I joined, we were heavily involved in the leadership of an instrument aboard the first major truly international mission to study the Sun, the NASA Solar Maximum Mission (launched 1980). 

In the subsequent 30 years there were 11 major solar missions. Four of these carried instruments led by RAL Space; nine carried instruments that included RAL Space hardware. Our record became second to none and this strength played a huge role in putting the UK solar research community in a world leading position. 

One of my highlights was the launch of the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) in 1995, carrying the RAL Space-led Coronal Diagnostic Spectrometer (CDS) – a solar extreme-UV spectrometer designed to provide detailed diagnostics of the Sun’s super-hot atmosphere. CDS was a remarkable success and a credit to the engineering and operations teams. In its 20 years of operation almost 1000 professional research papers were published around the world from this mission. The scientific impact of SOHO has provided a wonderful benchmark in our understanding of the Sun. 

Nevertheless, there are gaps in our knowledge. Since the beginning of the human race, our view of the Sun has always been from on, or near the Earth. With the launch of the NASA twin STEREO spacecraft in 2006, carrying the RAL Space-led Heliospheric Imagers, we had two spacecraft orbiting the Sun, rather than the Earth. These Imagers look back at the Sun and Earth and actually image the coronal mass ejections as they travel through the solar system. 

So, to bring us up to date, Solar Orbiter is about to fill two other outstanding gaps in our knowledge. First, it will fly closer to the Sun than Mercury - just close enough to enable a carefully shielded spacecraft to take close-up views of the Sun and study the environment around the spacecraft so close to a star. Second, it will climb out of the so-called ecliptic plane, enabling unprecedented views of the polar regions of the Sun. Imagine the potential for new science by taking a first glance at the solar poles. The mission was first conceived in the late 1990s with RAL Space playing a leading role in the proposal and early development. It is extremely satisfying to see the mission come to fruition. The RAL Space-led SPICE instrument takes the concepts of the earlier SOHO instrumentation to new levels. 

I have only mentioned some of the exciting missions that we have been involved with. Through an active programme of mission conception, acquisition, development and operation, RAL Space has been at the forefront of studies of the Sun for decades including, now, the emerging field of space weather, and has provided space-based facilities for the UK’s worldleading research community. 

Professor Richard A Harrison MBE

RAL Space Chief Scientist 

Principal Investigator ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (CDS instrument – 1992 to 2004) 

Principal Investigator – NASA STEREO (HI instruments – 2002 to date)​


Contact: RAL Space Enquiries