Another probe (maybe) escapes from the solar system

So far, humans have sent five objects into space that meet all the conditions to leave our planetary system in the future. But another investigation has a chance of joining them, if they’re lucky.

I posted a few years ago textIt briefly discusses the fuzzy frontiers of the solar system and the third cosmic velocity required for an object to escape the gravity of our star and drift into galactic space. I wrote at the time that such an adventure would surely await five devices launched by man into space, namely: Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, Voyager 2, Voyager 1 And the new Horizons. Each of these unmanned probes has already completed the main part of its mission (namely, studying individual planets and moons) and is on a trajectory that allows it to jump out of the backyard.

However, it turns out that there is another probe that may go beyond the solar system. I emphasize “maybe” because his future leaves a lot of room for speculation.

The case concerned the Ulysses mission, which was launched by NASA and the European Space Agency in the fall of 1990. Its main purpose was to study the activity of the Sun, but its trajectory was significantly different from, for example, the ongoing Parker Solar Probe mission. First of all, Ulysses was initially launched towards… Jupiter, so in the opposite direction to our central star. At the same time, the machine reached a speed of 15.4 km / s – faster than the aforementioned Pioneers or Voyagers, and in general a record for its time. In this way, less than two years later, Ulysses reached the gas giant, passing it at a distance similar to the distance between the Earth and the Moon.

The 370-kilogram Ulysses was created in collaboration with Americans and Europeans. It was launched in 1990 aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Originally, the launch was supposed to take place earlier, but like many other missions of the period, there was a delay due to the launch Challenger disaster.

However, the probe did not fly towards the outskirts of the solar system, but was turned back by the enormous force of gravity. Jupiter. In most cases (for example, the Voyager mission), the gravitational aids of the gas giants are used instead to give the probes an extra boost and speed up their journey toward the outer regions of our system. In this case, the mass of the largest planet was used to bend and cleverly “twist” Ulysses’ trajectory by several tens of degrees. The maneuver made it possible to direct the device into a non-standard orbit around the Sun, where it was located almost perpendicular to the plane of planetary motion. As a result, the probe became the first scientific instrument capable of seeing our star from the perspective of its poles.

orbit of the Ulysses spacecraft
The Ulysses spacecraft took advantage of Jupiter’s gravity to reorient itself into a solar orbit roughly perpendicular to the solar system’s disk.

Tropical gymnastics was a complete success. Between 1994 and 1995, Ulysses flew below the sun’s south pole, made a gentle arc, passed the north pole, and then returned to Jupiter’s orbit. The spacecraft repeated this process two more times, approaching the star again in 2001 and 2008. Astronomers were pleased that the mission took much longer than expected, yielding a wealth of interesting data about the solar wind, unique measurements of the heliosphere, and confirmation of that. The existence of 11-year cycles of magnetic activity of the Sun. In addition, the probe flew three times through the tails of unexpectedly encountered comets.

The last signal from Ulysses was received on June 30, 2009 – nineteen years after launch. officially dead However, the probe remained in orbit, up to the present time sailing between Jupiter and the center of the solar system.

Here begins an interesting conclusion to this story. While we are certain that over the next few decades the machine left to itself will continue to move in its current elliptical orbit around the Sun, the further future of the mission is shrouded in a haze that has only thickened over time. Chaos Theory.

There is, of course, a good chance that Ulysses’ orbit will turn out to be stable, meaning the object will follow the same path for thousands, if not millions of years, without hindrance. This is the fate of his “ward” predicted by the head of the project, Ed Massey. However, this is not a sure scenario, because the movement of the silent machine is constantly affected by the gravitational forces of the passing objects. I mean not only the sun and the planets, but also the shoals of comets and the large moons of Jupiter. Here’s the crux of the problem: We don’t have complete data on the motion and size of each celestial body, the pressure of the solar wind, and we don’t get any new reports from Ulysses, so we have no idea about possible orbital deviations. Our knowledge remains limited and will decrease over time.

So we’re left at the mercy of inaccurate models. According to them, the biggest chance of disturbing Ulysses’ current trajectory will occur on November 7, 2098. Then the spacecraft will record its closest encounter with Jupiter yet, which will end up either extending its orbit or launching it out of the solar system. For now, the first option seems more likely, but it’s enough for Ulysses to hit Jupiter’s gravitational grip a little faster than we expect it to be launched like a slingshot.

Ulysses probe leaving the solar system
There is a possibility that in the year 2098 Jupiter’s gravity could expel Ulysses out of the solar system.

The margin is less than a day, which doesn’t make much difference, given the remaining 70 years. Chances are raised by Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, and other Jupiter satellites, whose alignment in 2098 (hard to pin down today) might alter the probe’s flight path. If either of these two events causes an orbit curvature or a change in velocity by even a fraction of a percentage, then in the future Ulysses will become another random ambassador of mankind into interstellar space.

Supplementary literature:
mehta, The simple physics trick that has allowed us to venture deeper into spaceAnd the [online:];
Dr.. shiga, Solar spacecraft Ulysses freezes to deathAnd the [];
An overview of UlyssesAnd the [online:];
K. Ziolkowski, beyond the ground. History of interplanetary flightsWarsaw 2017;
It is also worth taking a look at the interesting discussion from the forum

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