The Solar Orbiter will approach Earth on its way to the center of the solar system this weekend. The spacecraft will fly 460 kilometers over North Africa and the Canary Islands at 5:30 a.m. Saturday.
According to the European Space Agency (ESA), during a somewhat risky maneuver, a probe controlled from the Darmstadt Control Center must pass through two orbits to avoid space debris. A collision is highly unlikely, says Simon Blum, ESA’s chief of mission.
As part of a joint project between the European Space Agency and the US space agency NASA, the €1.5 billion Solar Orbiter spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, with 10 science instruments on board. Its purpose is to gain new knowledge about the Sun and its magnetic field. It is planned to approach the Sun at a distance of 42 million km.
After launching the probe, it will approach Earth for the first and last time on Saturday. The purpose of the maneuver is to slow down the accelerator, which is approaching at a speed of 29 kilometers per second. The Earth’s force is slowing down to 7.2 kilometers per second. Without this maneuver, the probe will accelerate more and more toward the Sun due to the star’s gravitational force and will likely outrun it.
The Solar Orbiter would likely be visible to the naked eye from such a distance, Bloom said, but it would be too fast to detect.
In the weeks following the maneuver, all instruments on board the probe will be working. Next March, the solar probe will approach the center of the solar system 42 million kilometers, getting closer to the sun than ever before. This is only a third of the distance between the Sun and the Earth. That’s when you take more photos of the star.
The Solar Orbiter has previously taken its first recordings of explosions of particles in the Sun’s atmosphere. This strong solar wind also affects space weather. On planets in the atmosphere, the particles cause polar light, but they can also cause technical problems, such as damage to satellites or failure of navigation systems. We spoke to astronomer Robert Erdeley recently about what would happen if such an explosion hit Earth.
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