On February 9, a small spacecraft began an unprecedented journey through space — getting closer to the Sun than any other man-made object has before.
The Solar Orbiter has been traveling through space for nearly a year, and on December 27, it made the first rest stop of its journey: A brief flyby of Venus that will fuel the second half of the spacecraft’s trip.
Here's the background — Solar Orbiter is a collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency. Its mission aims to answer some of the unresolved, yet fundamental, questions scientists have about the Sun. What drives solar wind? How does the Sun’s magnetic field affect solar activity? And how does the star influence the Solar System, including our own planet?
It will take the spacecraft around two years to reach its target vantage point on Sun, using gravitational boosts resulting from flybys of Earth and Venus to make the journey.
What's new — On Sunday, the Solar Orbiter used the gravitational pull of Venus to slightly pump its brakes, and set itself on the accurate trajectory towards the Sun, the mission's scientists announced on Twitter.
During the flyby, the spacecraft collected valuable data on the Solar System’s most hellish planet, which scientists are eager to dive into. The mission's scientists predict it will take a couple of days to fully analyze the information, according to their Twitter updates.
The Solar Orbiter gathered magnetometer, particle, plasma and radio data that could provide insights into how Venus interacts with solar winds.
What's next — This is the first of many flybys of Venus, with the Solar Orbiter returning to the small planet every few orbits around the Sun in order to adjust its path. The Solar Orbiter’s next Venus flyby is scheduled for August, 2021.
Earlier in June, the spacecraft made its first close approach to the Sun, getting as close as 48 million miles to the star's surface, which is around half the distance between the Sun and the Earth.
By 2025, the Solar Orbiter will make its first pass by the Sun at 17 degrees of inclination, which will later increase to 33 degrees of inclination by the end of the decade. That will bring the Sun’s polar regions into direct view.
The Solar Orbiter is designed to take the most-accurate measurements yet of the Sun's solar wind, and capture a view of the Sun's magnetic poles from a high altitude for the very first time. To do that, it uses entirely new technology that will enable it to withstand the burning heat of the Sun.
The spacecraft carries 10 scientific instruments onboard. Six of them are remote sensing, capturing images of the Sun, while the remaining four are in-situ instruments, which will measure the surrounding environment around the spacecraft comprised of solar wind, plasma, and particles.
The Solar Orbiter will travel in an elliptical orbit around the Sun, completing one orbit every 168 days.
Ultimately, it will travel outside of the confines of the Solar System and peer down at the Sun, imaging the star from a high altitude. From its unique vantage point, the craft is set to capture the first images of the Sun’s polar regions, providing scientists with a better understanding of how the Sun’s magnetic field affects solar activity.