Solar Maximum Mission
Solar Maximum Mission.
Mission typeSolar physics
COSPAR ID1980-014A Edit this at Wikidata
SATCAT no.11703
Mission durationFinal: 9 years, 9 months, 17 days
Spacecraft properties
BusMultimission Modular Spacecraft
ManufacturerFairchild Industries
Launch mass2,315.0 kilograms (5,103.7 lb)
Dimensions4 by 2.3 metres (13.1 by 7.5 ft)
Start of mission
Launch dateFebruary 14, 1980, 15:57:00 (1980-02-14UTC15:57Z) UTC
RocketDelta 3910
Launch siteCape Canaveral LC-17A
End of mission
Decay dateDecember 2, 1989 (1989-12-03)
Orbital parameters
Reference systemGeocentric
RegimeLow Earth
Perigee altitude508.0 kilometers (315.7 mi)
Apogee altitude512.0 kilometers (318.1 mi)
Inclination28.5 degrees
Period94.80 minutes
Mean motion15.19
Astronaut George Nelson attempts to capture the Solar Maximum Mission satellite during STS-41-C.

The Solar Maximum Mission satellite (or SolarMax) was designed to investigate Solar phenomena, particularly solar flares. It was launched on February 14, 1980. The SMM was the first satellite based on the Multimission Modular Spacecraft bus manufactured by Fairchild Industries, a platform which was later used for Landsats 4 and 5[1] as well as the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite.

After an attitude control failure in November 1980 it was put in standby mode until April 1984 when it was repaired by a Shuttle mission.

The Solar Maximum Mission ended on December 2, 1989, when the spacecraft re-entered the atmosphere and burned up over the Indian Ocean.[2]


Experiments on board the Solar Maximum Mission
Name Target Principal Investigator
Coronagraph/Polarimeter: 446.5–658.3 nm, 1.5- 6 radii fov, 6.4 arcsec res. Solar corona, prominences, and flares House, Lewis L., High Altitude Observatory
Ultraviolet Spectrometer and polarimeter 175.0–360.0 nm raster imager, 0.004 nm sp.res. Solar UV, Earth's atmosphere Tandberg-Hanssen, Einar A., NASA Marshall Space Flight Center
Soft X-ray Polychromator: raster imager, crystal spectrom. in parts of 0.14–2.25 nm Solar flares, active solar regions Acton, Loren W., Lockheed Palo Alto, Culhane, J University College, London, Leonard, Gabriel, Alan-Henri, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
Hard X-ray Imaging Spectrometer: fov 6.4 arcmin, 8 or 32 arcsec res, 3.5–30 keV Solar active regions and flares de Jager, Cornelis, University of Utrecht
Hard X-ray Burst Spectrometer: CsI(Na), 15 energy channels covering 20–260 keV Solar flares and active regions Frost, Kenneth J., NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Gamma-ray Spectrometer: NaI(T1),0.01-100 MeV in 476 channels, 16.4 s per spectrum solar gamma-rays Chupp, Edward L, University of New Hampshire
Active Cavity Radiometer Irradiance Monitor: 0.001-1000 micrometer solar flux solar irradiance Willson, Richard C, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Failure and repair

The white-light coronagraph/polarimeter (C/P) took coronal images for about six months from March 1980 before suffering an electronics failure in September that prevented operation.[2]

In November 1980, the second of four fuses in SMM's attitude control system failed, causing it to rely on its magnetorquers in order to maintain attitude. In this mode, only three of the seven instruments on board were usable, as the others required the satellite to be accurately pointed at the Sun. The use of the satellite's magnetorquers prevented the satellite from being used in a stable position and caused it to "wobble" around its nominally sun-pointed attitude.[3] SMM was left in standby mode for 3 years.[2]

The first orbiting, uncrewed satellite to be repaired in space, SMM was notable in that its useful life compared with similar spacecraft was significantly increased by the direct intervention of a crewed space mission. During STS-41-C in April 1984, the Space Shuttle Challenger rendezvoused with the SMM, astronauts James van Hoften and George Nelson attempted to use the Manned Maneuvering Unit to capture the satellite and to bring it into the orbiter's payload bay for repairs and servicing. The plan was to use an astronaut-piloted Maneuvering Unit to grapple the satellite with the Trunnion Pin Attachment Device (TPAD) mounted between the hand controllers of the Maneuvering Unit, null its rotation rates, and allow the Shuttle to bring it into the Shuttle's payload bay for stowage. Three attempts to grapple the satellite using the TPAD failed. The TPAD jaws could not lock onto Solar Max because of an obstructing grommet on the satellite not included in its blueprints.

This led to an improvised plan which nearly ended the satellite's mission. The improvisation had the astronaut use his hands to grab hold of a solar array and null the rotation with a push from the Maneuvering Unit's thrusters. Instead, this attempt induced higher rates and in multiple axes; the satellite was tumbling out of control and quickly losing battery life. SMM Operations Control Center engineers shut down all non-essential satellite subsystems and with a bit of luck were able to recover the satellite minutes before total failure. The ground support engineers then stabilized the satellite and nulled its rotation rates for capture with the Shuttle's robotic arm. This proved to be a much better plan. The satellite had been fitted with one of the arm's grapple fixtures so that the robotic arm was able to capture and maneuver it into the shuttle's payload bay for repairs.[4]

During the mission, the SMM's entire attitude control system module and the electronics module for the coronagraph/polarimeter instrument were replaced, and a gas cover was installed over the X-ray polychromator.[4] Their successful work added five more years to the lifespan of the satellite. The mission was depicted in the 1985 IMAX movie The Dream Is Alive.

Discovery of comets

10 comets were discovered in images from the SMM.[5]

Designation Observation date Discoverer[6]
C1987 T2 (SMM-1) Oct 5,1987 Dr Orville Chris St. Cyr
C/1987 U4 (SMM-2) Oct 17,1987 O. C. St. Cyr
1988l (SMM-3) Jun 27, 1988 O. C. St. Cyr
1988m (SMM-4) Aug 21, 1988 David Kobe, C. Waugh
1988n (SMM-5) Oct 11-12 1988 O.C. St. Cyr[7]
1988p (SMM-6) Nov 18, 1988 O.C. St. Cyr[8]
1988q (SMM-7) Oct 24, 1988 Andrew L. Stanger[9]
1989m (SMM-8) Jun 2, 1989 O.C. St. Cyr, David L. Kobe [10]
1989q (SMM-9) Jul 8,1989 O.C. St. Cyr[11]
1989x (SMM-10) Sep 28,1989 O.C. St. Cyr[12]


A coronal transient as seen by the SMM on May 5, 1980.

Significantly, the SMM's ACRIM instrument package showed that contrary to expectations, the Sun is actually brighter during the sunspot cycle maximum (when the greatest number of dark 'sunspots' appear). This is because sunspots are surrounded by bright features called faculae, which more than cancel the darkening effect of the sunspot.

The major scientific findings from the SMM are presented in several review articles in a monograph.[13]

End of mission

SMM's orbit slowly decayed due to atmospheric drag taking it down into denser regions.

The March 1989 geomagnetic storm was reported to have led to SMM dropping half a kilometre at the start of the storm and 5 kilometres over the whole period.[14]

SMM lost attitude control on November 17, 1989, and re-entry and burn-up occurred on December 2, 1989, over the Indian Ocean.[2]

See also


  1. ^ Suzuki, Masaharu (11 February 1999). "TOPEX/Poseidon – Description of Mission". University of Texas. Archived from the original on 20 November 2013. Retrieved 9 July 2013. The satellite bus was taken from the Multimission Modular Spacecraft (MMS), which has been proven on previous MMS-based missions: the Solar Maximum Mission and Landsat 4 and 5.
  3. ^ "STS-41-C Press Kit" (PDF). NASA. Retrieved 9 July 2013. All four of those instruments require pointing accuracy from the spacecraft and could not function effectively with the spacecraft spinning through space with its longitudinal axis pointed toward the sun, as it has since the attitude control system failure.
  4. ^ a b "STS-41-C Press Kit" (PDF). NASA. Retrieved 9 July 2013. Repairs to be made during the mission include replacing the attitude control system module, replacing the main electronics box on the Polarimeter/Polarimeter, and placing a cover over the gas vent of the X-Ray Polychrometer.
  5. ^ "Sungrazing comets observed by the solar maximum mission coronagraph". Archived from the original on 2022-07-02. Retrieved 2022-07-02.
  6. ^ My Solwind Comets (by Rainer Kracht)
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  13. ^ Strong, Keith T.; Saba, Julia L. R.; Haisch, Bernhard M.; Schmelz, Joan T. (1999). Strong KT; Saba JLR; Haisch BM; Schmelz JT (eds.). The many faces of the sun : a summary of the results from NASA's Solar Maximum Mission. New York: Springer. Bibcode:1999mfs..conf.....S.
  14. ^ "Effects of the March 1989 Solar Activity", by Allen, Frank, Sauer, Reiff, in Eos, November 14, 1989 p. 1488