Picard Delivered Late, but Just in Time for Next Solar Cycle

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PARIS — France’s Picard sun-monitoring satellite, scheduled for launch June 15, is two years behind schedule — which is excellent news, according to Picard program managers.

Because of a slower-than-expected start to the next solar cycle, Picard’s two-year delay is placing it almost exactly where its designers wanted it to be when they proposed the mission some 12 years ago — at the start of a new cycle when solar activity begins to increase.

Picard program managers hope to be able to use the 150-kilogram satellite to complement data from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which was launched in February and recently has delivered striking images of solar eruptions.

“We are lucky in that the sun is still in a state of calm,” said Jean-Yves Prado, head of solar, heliospheric and magnetospheric studies at the French space agency, CNES. “When we designed Picard in 1998, we had wanted it to operate during the ascending solar cycle, which we had thought would be in 2008. Then the project’s budget was frozen in 2002 and 2003, and led to delays that turned out to be not so much of a problem for us.”

In a June 1 press briefing here, Prado said the delays have had an effect on Picard’s budget, which is now estimated at 70 million euros ($85 million). The figure includes the satellite’s design, manufacture, launch and two years of operations. It also includes contributions from the Belgian and Swiss space agencies.

Picard will be the third satellite using the CNES-designed Myriade platform. Most of the satellite’s payload instruments and its onboard computer were developed by the Latmos laboratory, which is part of France’s CNRS scientific research organization.

It was an unusually large assignment to give to Latmos, according to the laboratory’s director, Daniele Hauser — especially given its 10-year duration and the fact that it was frozen for two years midway to completion because of CNES budget issues before being restarted.

The Myriade platform and the larger Proteus platform were developed by CNES to serve national science and Earth observation missions financed and managed outside the 18-nation European Space Agency.

The challenges of pursuing such missions given the limited discretionary budget of CNES became clear during 2002-2003, when several CNES-run satellite programs were delayed or canceled to cope with a budget crisis due in part to unexpected spending on the French-led Ariane 5 rocket following a launch failure.

Picard will be launched aboard a Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr vehicle from Russia’s refurbished Yasny launch site near the border with Kazakhstan. The launch, which will also carry the two Swedish Prisma satellites to test formation-flying techniques, had been delayed for months because of a dispute between Russia and Kazakhstan over the issue of rocket debris falling on Kazakh territory.

Also threatening to delay the launch was the fact that Yasny, which the Russian government is developing into a major spaceport and facilities for 30,000 people, is located next to an open-air asbestos mine. Measures of asbestos concentrations in the air at Yasny showed levels that were a multiple of what is permitted for workers in France except in special circumstances.

Prado said specific waivers were necessary to permit the 12-member CNES team to travel to Yasny to prepare for the launch.

Picard is scheduled to be operated for two years starting in September following in-orbit checkout of its instruments. But Gerard Thuillier, Picard’s science director, said it is almost certain that the mission will last three years.