Coronal mass ejection reaches Solar Orbiter before Venus flyby

Coronal mass ejection reaches Solar Orbiter before Venus flyby

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Early Sunday, Sept. 4, Solar Orbiter flew by Venus for a gravity assist maneuver that alters the spacecraft’s orbit, bringing it even closer to the Sun. As if trying to get the orbiter’s attention as it approached another Solar System body, the Sun launched a huge “coronal mass ejection” directly at the spacecraft and the planet just two days before its closest approximation, and the data is revealing.

in depth

On August 30, a large coronal mass ejection shot from the Sun in the direction of Venus. Soon after, the storm reached the second planet from the Sun. As data continues to pour in from Solar Orbiter, this attack reveals why “in situ” monitoring of space weather and its effects on Solar System bodies and spacecraft is so important.

Solar Orbiter flyby of Venus

Fortunately, there were no negative effects on the spacecraft, as the ESA-NASA solar observatory is designed to withstand and indeed measure the violent outbursts of our star, although Venus does not always go down so lightly. Coronal mass ejections have a tendency to erode the atmosphere of Venus, removing gases as they pass.

Fly high with flying Venus

Solar Orbiter is a quarter of the way through its decade-long mission to observe the Sun up close and see its mysterious poles. Its orbit was chosen to be in close resonance with Venus, meaning it returns to the vicinity of the planet every few orbits to use its gravity to alter or tilt its orbit.

Until now, Solar Orbiter has been limited to the same plane as the planets, but starting in February 2025, each encounter with Venus will increase its orbital inclination, causing it to “jump” out of the plane of the Solar System to get a view. of the mysterious polar regions of the Sun.]

This third flyby of Venus took place at 01:26 UTC on Sunday, when Solar Orbiter passed 12,500 km from the center of the planet, which is about 6,000 km from its gaseous “surface”. In other words, it passed a distance of half the width of the Earth.

Its distance from Venus, angle of approach and speed were meticulously planned to obtain the exact desired effect of the planet’s great gravitational pull, bringing it closer to the Sun than ever before.

Solar Orbiter flight control equipment during pre-launch simulations in 2020

“The close approach was exactly as planned, thanks to great planning by our Flight Dynamics colleagues and the diligent care of the flight control team,” explains Jose-Luis Pellon-Bailon, director of ‘Solar Orbiter operations.

“By trading ‘orbital energy’ with Venus, Solar Orbiter has used the planet’s gravity to change its orbit without requiring masses of expensive fuel. When it returns to the Sun, the spacecraft’s closest approach will be about 4.5 million km closer than before”.

Understand the particles that pose a radiation risk

Data sent home since the Solar Orbiter encountered the solar storm shows how its local environment changed as the large CME passed. While some instruments had to be turned off during its next approach to Venus, in order to protect them from scattered sunlight reflected off the planet’s surface, Solar Orbiter’s “in situ” instruments remained on, recording , among other things, an increase in solar energy particles. .

The Sun-Earth connection

Particles, mostly protons and electrons, but also some ionized atoms like helium, are emitted by the Sun all the time. When particularly large flames and plasma ejections are shot from the Sun, these particles are picked up and carried along with them, accelerated to near-relativistic speeds. It is these particles that pose a radiation risk to astronauts and spacecraft.

Improving our understanding of CMEs and tracking their progress as they pass through the Solar System is an important part of Solar Orbiter’s mission. By observing CMEs, the solar wind and the Sun’s magnetic field, the spacecraft’s ten science instruments provide new insight into how the 11-year cycle of solar activity works. Ultimately, these findings will help us better predict periods of stormy space weather and protect planet Earth from violent outbursts from the Sun.

bye, hello?

SOHO captures the coronal mass ejection from the far side of the Sun toward Venus

This recent CME illustrates a difficulty in space weather observations. As seen in this SOHO footage, a “full halo” is visible when a CME comes directly to Earth, or in this case directly away, from the “far side” of the Sun.

Determining whether coronal mass ejections are moving toward or away from Earth is tricky when viewed from Earth, because in both cases it appears to be expanding. One of the many advantages of the upcoming Vigil mission is that by combining images taken from the direction of Earth and Vigil’s position on the “side” of the Sun, the fifth Lagrange point, it will be easy and reliable to distinguish between a storm that approaching or leaving.

Space weather gets deep

The Sun exerts its influence on all the bodies of the Solar System. It is the reason why no life could survive on the inner planets, the temperatures were too hot and their atmospheres had been removed long ago.

As we venture from Earth to the Moon, it is vital to understand how space weather can affect human bodies, robots, communication systems, and plants and animals.

Solar Orbiter’s stellar views hint at Vigil’s future

In addition to a range of tools to understand the Sun’s effect on Earth’s infrastructure, ESA’s Space Weather Services Network currently alerts teams flying missions throughout the Solar System to extreme space weather, with forecasts for Mercury, Venus and Mars available for free through the network portal. and Jupiter along the way.

“Collecting data on events like this is crucial to understanding how they arise, improving our space weather models, forecasts and early warning systems,” explains Alexi Glover, coordinator of ESA’s Space Meteorology Service.

“Solar Orbiter gives us an excellent opportunity to compare our predictions with real observations and test the performance of our models and tools for these regions.”

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