The risky Solar Orbiter maneuver close to the ground

On Saturday morning, the Solar Orbiter Probe will approach Earth within the orbit of the International Space Station. It will pass through two rings of satellites surrounding the Earth and space debris. All this is to change the plane of the orbit, which will allow the probe to be directed closer to the sun, according to CBK PAN.

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The Solar Orbiter mission is a joint project of the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA. The probe, which was built at a cost of $1.5 billion and has a total weight of 1.8 tons, has 10 measuring instruments on board.

Close encounters with the sun

The Solar Orbiter probe, which was launched in February 2020, has completed the start-up phase, during which scientists tested individual devices and instruments, and began the research phase in which there will be close encounters with the Sun. The ship moves in an elliptical orbit, and its speed changes depending on its distance from the sun. So far, the solar module has orbited the sun three times.

However, in order for the probe, whose main scientific goal is the study of the solar poles, to perform its task, it is necessary to change the parameters of the orbit again. That’s what Saturday’s maneuver serves – it’s to allow for orbital energy loss and orbit tilt change – reads in a statement from the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Space Research Center (CBK PAN).

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Changes in orbit tilt are necessary if we want the probe’s instruments to better “see” the poles. The entire maneuver depends on our knowledge of the mechanics of the sky, because in this type of mission, nature is used in the first place, and not the engines. In interplanetary missions such as the solar orbit, planets representing the centers of gravity are used to change the speed, inclination, and other parameters of the spacecraft’s orbit. Thanks to this, we save a lot of fuel, and the probe goes where we want it – says Dr. Thomas Mrozek From the Department of Heliophysics at the Space Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Wroclaw, one of the scientists working on the analysis of data from the STIX instrument, quoted in the release.

The probe will approach the Earth

The maneuver is necessary to reduce the spacecraft’s orbital energy and arrange it for the next close pass near the sun, but it does come with risks. The solar probe must pass through two orbital regions made up of satellites and space debris. The first is a geostationary ring of satellites at an altitude of about 36,000 km, and the second is a group of objects in low Earth orbit about 400 km away. As a result, there is little risk of a collision. The Solar Orbiter operations team is closely monitoring the situation and will alter the spacecraft’s trajectory if it sees any danger,” – reports CBK PAN.

solar orbit It will approach Earth around Saturday morning. 5.30 our time. The probe will be visible in the sky for a moment, but it will only be possible over North Africa and the Canary Islands. Most importantly, getting close to our planet is an opportunity to study the Earth’s magnetic field. It is of great importance because the magnetosphere protects the Earth from solar plasma, the constant “wind” of particles escaping from the Sun. Not only can solar wind particles penetrate the magnetic field and ignite the northern lights in our skies, but atoms from our atmosphere can also be lost to space.

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The data collected by the Solar Orbiter will be combined with that collected, among other things, via the Swarm satellites. – Solar Orbiter constantly measures the state of the environment it is going through, which is why Its data can help with space weather forecasts. However, the probe’s telescopes are still dormant. The exception is the X-ray monitoring tool STIX, which is working and we are constantly receiving new data. Now, due to Earth’s closer proximity and better transmission capabilities, we’re getting more of this data, Dr. Mrozek explains.

The main part of the Solar Orbiter mission will last for seven years, including the two-year period between launch and the spacecraft’s first science orbit.

Polish participation in the mission

The Space Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences is engaged in engineering and research work related to the STIX X-ray telescope/meter. STIX belongs to a group of six remote sensors (telescopes) on the Solar Orbiter mission He will be responsible for the X-ray observations. It will determine the time and sources of emission of this radiation, its intensity and spectral characteristics. The data obtained with STIX will also help explain how electrons in the Sun are accelerated and how they are transported into interplanetary space.

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