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The European Space Agency's (ESA) Solar Orbiter is skimming the Earth for gravity assist

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Solar Orbiter is skimming the Earth for gravity assist

The chance of the ESA’s Solar Orbiter spacecraft encountering space debris during its next flight from Earth is extremely low. However, the risks are not zero and are greater than any other flight that the European Space Agency has undertaken. Having that risk at all highlights the mess we’ve created in space — and why we need to take action to clean up behind ourselves.

On November 27, after a year and eight months of flying through the inner solar system, the Solar Orbiter will swing into the home to “drop” some extra power. This will arrange the spacecraft for its next six flights from Venus. This is final Gravity helps It will smooth and tilt the Solar Orbiter’s orbit, allowing the heat-shielded probe to capture the first-ever direct images of our star’s poles, and much more.

During the next flyby, it is estimated that the solar orbiter will travel only 460 kilometers from the Earth’s surface at its closest point – about 30 kilometers above the path of the International Space Station. It will travel twice through the geostationary ring 36,000 km from the Earth’s surface and even through low Earth orbit, less than 2,000 km – two regions strewn with space junk. Credit: ESA

How dangerous? It’s all connected

Before we get too worried, let’s start by noting that the chance of a wreck hitting a Solar Orbiter is pretty high, very Small. Earth observation missions spend their entire lives in low Earth orbit — the most debris-strewn region in space, and while they perform collision avoidance maneuvers several times a year, the solar craft will spend just a few minutes here as it heads closer and leaves again, onward to Venus.

Space station dome window chip effect

This image was taken by European Space Agency astronaut Tim Peake from inside a dome on the International Space Station, showing a 7mm diameter circular slice that was torn off by the impact of a small piece of space debris, possibly peeling paint or a small metal fragment not larger than a few across A thousandth of a millimeter. The background only shows the darkening of the granular space. Credit: European Space Agency/NASA

No matter how small the risks, crashing into debris at low altitudes from the ground Act Happen or occur. In 2016, a solar panel aboard the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1A spacecraft was hit by a particle believed to be less than five millimeters in size. Despite its size, its high relative velocity means that it can still damage an area 40 cm wide, resulting in a slight decrease in internal energy and slight changes in the satellite’s orientation and orbit. Hundreds of millions of debris particles of this size are currently in orbit.

Hebel NASA/ The European Space Agency (ESA) space telescope, spent 31 years in orbit around the Earth at an altitude of about 547 km. At that time, the sky was filled with satellites, debris, and I felt the effectIts solar panels have been bombarded and degraded by tiny debris particles.

BepiColombo Earth Flyby

In April 2020, BepiColombo flew close to Earth close to 12,500 km. The European Space Agency’s Office of Space Debris also conducted a collision risk analysis for this flight as the spacecraft passed through geostationary orbit, even though it flew over debris-strewn low Earth orbit. Credit: ESA/BepiColombo/MTM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

While the risk to the Solar Orbiter during its incoming flight from Earth is minimal, it is still “non-zero”. It didn’t face that risk because it swung from Venus, and the European Space Agency’s Office of Space Debris didn’t have to perform collision risk analysis like BepiColombo recently compressed by Mercury, or when CassiniHugens . flew Jupiter.

For example, previous flights to Earth, when Cassini/Huygens flew close to Earth in 1999, Rosetta returned three times in 2005, 2007, and 2009, and Juno swung in 2013, there were fewer satellites, and fewer of debris, and the absence of “massive star clusters” in orbit. Flying above ground today, while still safe, is more dangerous than it used to be.

Avoid collision between planets

The European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office recently began risk assessments based on the trajectory of the solar orbiter and the expected position of indexed objects in Earth orbit, providing the collision potential for any given close approach.

In these cases, the uncertainty starts out high but narrows as the orbits of the objects evolve. As the moment of approach approaches, our monitoring data improves, reducing uncertainty in the location of the objects in question. As is almost always the case, the more we knew about the position of two objects, the more certain we were that they would pass each other safely.

collision avoidance cost

Space may seem vast and empty, but satellites in Earth’s orbit face the constant danger of collision — with other satellites, dead or alive, or with shards of debris. It is now the norm for spacecraft operators on busy highways to divert their mission out of harm’s way. In fact at the European Space Agency, each air mission on average performs two collision avoidance maneuvers each year. These maneuvers are expensive. Hours on the ground are spent observing the skies, calculating hazards, planning maneuvers, not to mention the extra fuel expended and the science and data collected while the devices are turned off. Credit: ESA / UNOOSA

But sometimes, with the passage of time and the appearance of close proximity, the chance of collision increases. For each Sentinel mission in Earth’s orbit, a collision avoidance maneuver is performed approximately once every five to six months when “missing distance” with another object is considered too risky.

For the Solar Orbiter, in the unlikely scenario that requires a maneuver to get it out of the way of potential impact, a decision will be made on Thursday, November 25, two days before the close approach. It will be performed on Friday, November 26, about six hours before closing.

Is it all clear?

Once the solar orbit comes from low Earth orbit and passes over geostationary orbit, it is out of the danger zone. This should be about one hour after the minimum distance to the ground.

With the mission approaching, flying with a little less energy than it reached, she and her mission teams will never have to think about space debris again. For missions that are still in orbit, and for missions that have not yet been launched, the situation in space is becoming more worrisome than ever.

After decades of launches, with little thought about what to do with satellites at the end of their lives, our space environment has become littered with space debris. As the Solar Orbiter passes, momentarily through Earth’s orbital highways, it’s an important reminder that the problem of space debris is unique to Earth, of our own making, and the problem of our cleanup.

Watch the video above to learn how ESA works to prevent the creation of more debris and to clean up what is already there.

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