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 towards the sun, according to CBK PAN.

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.

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 the loss of orbital energy and change the tilt of the orbit – we read in the statement sent by Ewelina Zambrizika-Kosselnica of the Space Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences (CBK PAN).

“Changes in orbit tilt are necessary if we want spacecraft instruments to “see” the poles better. The entire maneuver is based on our knowledge of sky mechanics, because these types of missions rely primarily on nature, not engines. In interplanetary missions like the Solar Orbiter, Planets that make up the center of gravity, are used to change the speed, inclination and other parameters of the probe’s orbit. Thanks to this, we save a lot of fuel, and the probe goes where we want “- says Dr. Tomasz Mrozek of 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 STIX data, was quoted in the statement.

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 change the spacecraft’s trajectory if it sees any danger” – reports CBK PAN.

The Solar Orbiter 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.

The data collected by the Solar Orbiter will be combined with that collected, among other things, via the Swarm satellites. “The solar probe is constantly measuring the state of the environment it is in, so its data can help predict space weather. However, the probe’s telescopes are still dormant. The exception is our X-ray monitoring instrument, STIX, which is up and running and we are constantly receiving new data.” Due to our proximity to the Earth and better transmission possibilities, we are getting more of this data” – explains Dr. Mrozek.

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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.

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 sensing instruments (telescopes) of the Solar Orbiter mission that will also be responsible for 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. (PAP)

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