Solar Orbiter hit by mass ejection from the Sun during Venus flyby

This will also help us learn more about the Sun's solar cycle.
Ameya Paleja
ESA's Solar Orbiter.png
The Solar Orbiter during Venus Flyby


On September 4, the European Space Agency's Solar Orbiter (SolO) was approaching Venus for a flyby when it was hit by a coronal mass ejection, the space agency said in a press release.

As our Sun approaches the peak of yet another cycle, we are seeing a significant increase in solar activity. More sunspots are visible, and instances of solar flares are on the rise. The Earth's magnetosphere protects us from all such solar activity, but our spacecraft is continuously at risk from the energy-intensive bursts from the Sun.

To better understand this phenomenon, the European Space Agency launched the Solar Orbiter in February 2020. Its mission is to go as close to the Sun as possible and take readings of the inner heliosphere and observe the polar regions. This is aimed at helping us understand what transpires on the Sun every time its poles flip.

The Venus flyby

The Solar Orbiter's mission is scheduled for a decade during which it will remain in close resonance with Venus. As ESA explains on its webpage, every few orbits, SolO will keep returning to the vicinity of the planet in order to use the planet's gravity to either alter or tilt its own orbit.

On September 4, the orbiter was approaching the planet for the third time. Its angle of approach, velocity, and distance from Venus were meticulously planned so as to get the desired effect from the maneuver. This gravity assist was aimed at putting the orbiter in an orbit that was closer to the Sun than ever before.

As the orbiter was going through the maneuver, a coronal mass ejection that erupted from the Sun on August 30 reached Venus carrying high-intensity particles.

Is SolO okay?

The flyby went perfectly as planned by the Flight Dynamics and Flight Control teams at the ESA. When the orbiter next reaches the Sun, it will be nearly 2.8 million miles (4.5 million km) closer than before.

The team at ESA had turned off some of the orbiter's instruments as a preparation for the flyby. This would protect them from any stray sunlight reflected by the glassy planet. However, the 'in-situ' instruments on the orbiter measured the surge of energetic particles that were coming from the Sun.

The orbiter is equipped with 10 instruments that can help us understand solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and the Sun's magnetic field, which will broaden our understanding of the solar cycle and eventually help us better predict space weather.

Sitting at the center of our planetary system, the Sun exerts its influence on how the planets shape up. High temperatures from the Sun stripped off the atmospheres of the inner planets a long time ago and they can no longer support life.

As we aim to go to the Moon and beyond, we also need to understand how space weather will affect us when we do not enjoy the protections of the Earth's magnetosphere, as well as the impact they will have on our machines and communication systems.

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