The Solar Orbiter probe will pass through space debris to fly over Earth

This mission will be the “riskiest” in history. There is a small risk of collision of the spacecraft with space debris.

The Solar Orbiter probe is preparing to begin its main scientific mission of exploration of our star, but first it must return and make a flyby of Earth , during which it has to pass through clouds of space debris that surround the planet.

The flyby, which “will be the most risky so far for a scientific mission”, will take place on the 27th. At 04.30 GMT the spacecraft will be on its closest approach, just 460 kilometers over North Africa and the Spanish islands. Canary Islands, almost as close as the orbit of the International Space Station, reported the European Space Agency (ESA) .

The maneuver is essential to reduce the energy of the probe and align it for its next step close to the Sun , although there is “a small risk of collision” with some debris, so the operations team will monitor the situation closely and alter its trajectory if it appears to be in jeopardy.

The spacecraft must traverse two orbital regions, each of which is populated with space debris . The first is the geostationary ring of satellites at 36 thousand kilometers and the second is the collection of low Earth orbits at about 400 kilometers, so there is a risk of collision

His return to the vicinity of the Earth offers to Solar Orbiter a “unique opportunity” to study their magnetic field is “our atmosphere interface with the solar wind”, a constant stream of particles emitted by the sun .

A necessary mission

Solar Orbiter was launched in February 2020 and since last July it has been in the cruise phase. The probe has already made its first approach to the Sun , at 77 million kilometers, and has provided data from part of its instruments.

One of those already in action is the Energetic Particle Detector (EPD), whose main researcher is an astrophysicist at the University of Alcalá (Madrid) Javier Rodríguez-Pacheco, who has been taking measurements of the solar wind and other conditions around Solar Orbiter.

Although the probe is not yet in the mission phase that allows a full science mode , it has already generated a lot of science and more than fifty articles with its results are expected to see the light in December.

Of these, about twenty use data from the EPD, which has proven to be one of “the most reliable instruments” and its data one of the most used by the scientific community, Rodríguez-Pacheco highlighted.

After the ground flyby, the Solar Orbiter will return to the star and, in March, will make a second close pass, just 50 million kilometers, a third of the distance between the Sun and Earth .

That new approach will provide new images and data, for example, of the enigmatic “bonfires” that Solar Orbiter detected on the Sun during its first upcoming flight.

Those fires could hold clues as to why the star’s outer atmosphere is millions of degrees hot, while on the surface it’s only thousands, seemingly challenging physics.