The Solar Orbiter spacecraft, a joint venture between NASA and the European Space Agency, just passed Venus for the first of many flybys as it will study the sun.
Launched in February of 2020, the Solar Orbiter passed just 4,700 miles, or 7,500 kilometers, away from the top of Venus's clouds at 7:39 EST on December 27th. This first pass by Venus marks a milestone for the spacecraft as it will spend the next seven years orbiting the sun, collecting valuable research data on the center of our solar system.
In order to get as close as possible to the sun, the orbiter has to make loops of Venus to adjust its trajectory and gain momentum. The pass by the planet allowed the crew to collect some data on Venus as well, but the ESA did note that there would be no photos of the planet. This lack of imagery is primarily due to the fact that the heat shielding on the craft has to continuously point towards the sun to protect the craft. All of the photography and imaging equipment points through this shield, meaning that there's no opportunity for non-solar imagery on the mission.
Thanks to @esaoperations , a big dish in Argentina and our great team @Imperiacollege , we already have the Venus flyby data from @ESASolarOrbiter on the ground. It's all looking good, nice shock, downstream waves. What a great team. pic.twitter.com/KZ8jPTmXRz— Solar Orbiter magnetometer (@SolarOrbiterMAG) December 27, 2020
Being the first time that the orbiter passed Venus and collected data on the planet, the team went into the event with uncertain expectations. Data was collected using an onboard magnetometer, a radio and plasma wave devices, providing provisional data back to earth as seen in the tweet above.
Ground crews are of course digging into the data to see if they can draw anything of value, but being that the orbiter's main mission is the sun, they don't expect anything groundbreaking.
You can follow the real-time position of the lander utilizing this tool at any time.