Solar Orbiter completes its second flyby of Venus

European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter completes its second flyby of Venus – just 33 hours before the BepiColombo spacecraft is set to swing by the planet

  • Solar Orbiter flew by Venus this morning, coming 5,000 miles from the planet
  • BepiColombo will fly by on August 10, coming 340 miles from Venus surface
  • They are both heading to the inner solar system, using Venus for gravity assist 
  • Even though both spacecraft will be flying within a few thousand miles of Venus and just a day apart, they will be separated by over 350,000 miles of open space 

The European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter spacecraft has made its second flyby of Venus, just 33 hours before the BepiColombo craft makes its close approach.  

They are both using the gravitational pull of Venus to help them drop a little bit of orbital energy to reach their destinations at the centre of the solar system.

Solar Orbiter is on its way to study the polar regions of the sun in a bid to better understand its 11-year cycle, and made its approach at 05:42 BST, ESA said, coming within 4,967 of the planet. 

ESA’s New Norcia monitoring station in Australia lost contact with the solar orbit for six minutes, as expected.

ESA tweeted: ‘A few minutes ago, as the spacecraft swung behind the planet for its Venus Flyby, New Norcia station lost contact as expected.’

Six minutes later, it regained contact, writing: ‘New Norcia has you in sight again – we’re back in contact!’ 

BepiColombo is heading to Mercury on a seven year mission to study the structure and atmosphere of the innermost planet in the solar system and makes its approach to Earth’s ‘evil twin’ tomorrow at 14:42 BST.

The double flyby offers ESA astronomers a chance to study Earth’s sister-planet Venus from different locations at the same time, and places rarely visited by probes. 

They are both using the gravitational pull of Venus to help them drop a little bit of orbital energy to reach their destinations at the centre of the solar system 

The double flyby offers ESA astronomers a chance to study Earth’s sister-planet Venus from different locations at the same time, and places rarely visited by probes 

VENUS: THE BASICS 

Venus, the second planet from the sun, is a rocky planet about the same size and mass of the Earth.

However, its atmosphere is radically different to ours – being 96 per cent carbon dioxide and having a surface temperature of 867°F (464°C) and pressure 92 times that of on the Earth.

The inhospitable planet is swaddled in clouds of sulphuric acid that make the surface impossible to glimpse via the visible light spectrum.

In the past, Venus likely had oceans similar to Earth’s – but these would have vaporised as it underwent a runaway greenhouse effect.

The surface of Venus is a dry desertscape, which is periodically changed by volcanic activity.

The planet has no moons and orbits the Sun every 224.7 Earth days. 

Solar Orbiter is a partnership between ESA and NASA to study the polar regions of our host star.

This isn’t the first time the sun-observing satellite has visited Venus.

It is scheduled to make repeated gravity assist flybys of the planet throughout its mission in its bid to get close to the star at the heart of the solar system.

During the Venus flybys it is changing its orbital inclination.

While doing this, it is acting to boost itself out of the ecliptic plane, to get the best – and first – views of the sun’s poles.

BepiColombo is a partnership between ESA and the Japanese space agency JAXA.

It will fly by Venus at 14:48 BST on August 10, coming just 340 miles from the surface of the planet.

The probe is on its way to the mysterious innermost planet of the solar system, Mercury.

To get there it has required flybys of Earth, Venus and even Mercury itself to get close enough.

These flybys, coupled with the spacecraft’s solar electric propulsion system is what is required to steer into Mercury orbit against the gravitational pull of the sun.

It is not possible to take high-resolution imagery of Venus with the science cameras onboard either mission, so there won’t be new pictures of Earth’s ‘evil twin’. 

Solar Orbiter must remain facing the sun, and the main camera onboard BepiColombo is shielded by the transfer module that will deliver the two planetary orbiters to Mercury, according to ESA officials. 

However, two of BepiColombo’s three monitoring cameras will be taking photos around the time of close approach and in the days after as the planet fades.

The cameras provide black-and-white snapshots in 1024 x 1024 pixel resolution, and are positioned on the Mercury Transfer Module such that they also capture the spacecraft’s solar arrays and antennas. 

BepiColombo, a partnership between ESA and the Japanese space agency JAXA, will fly by Venus at 14:48 BST on August 10, coming just 340 miles from the surface of the planet

HOW WILL BEPICOLOMBO GET TO MERCURY? 

BepiColombo’s two orbiters, Japan’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter and the ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter, will be carried together.

The carrier will use electric propulsion and gravity-assists at Earth, Venus and Mercury in its 7.2 year journey. 

Once at Mercury, they will separate and move into their own orbits to make complementary measurements of Mercury’s interior, surface, exosphere and magnetosphere. 

The information will tell us more about the origin and evolution of a planet close to its parent star, providing a better understanding of the overall evolution of our own Solar System. 

BepiColombo features three components that will separate:

Mercury Transfer Module (MTM) for propulsion, built by the European Space Agency (ESA)

Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) built by ESA

Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) or MIO built by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

During the closest approach, Venus will fill the entire field of view, but as the spacecraft changes its orientation the planet will be seen passing behind the panels.

The images will be downloaded in batches, one by one, with the first image expected to be available in the evening of August 10, and the majority on August 11.  

Even though both spacecraft will be flying within a few thousand miles of Venus and just a day apart, they will be separated by over 350,000 miles of open space.

‘It is – unfortunately! – not expected that one spacecraft will be able to image the other,’ the European agency said in a blog post. 

Solar Orbiter has been acquiring data near-constantly since launch in February 2020 with its four instruments that measure the environment around the spacecraft itself.

Both Solar Orbiter and BepiColombo’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter and Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter will collect data on the magnetic and plasma environment of Venus from different locations. 

At the same time, JAXA’s Akatsuki spacecraft is in orbit around Venus, creating a unique constellation of datapoints. 

It will take many months to collate the coordinated flyby measurements and analyse them in a meaningful way, so information won’t be available straight away. 

The data collected during the flybys will also provide useful inputs to ESA’s future Venus orbiter, EnVision, which will launch to the planet in the 2030s.

Solar Orbiter and BepiColombo both have one more flyby of Venus this year. 

Solar Orbiter, a partnership between ESA and NASA, will fly by Venus on August 9, coming about 5,000 miles from the planet at 05:42 BST that morning

BepiColombo will see Mercury for the first time overnight on October 1, making its first of six flybys of Mercury – with this one from just just over 100 miles. 

The two planetary orbiters will be delivered into Mercury orbit in late 2025, tasked with studying all aspects of this mysterious inner planet.

This includes its core to surface processes, magnetic field, and exosphere, to better understand the origin and evolution of a planet close to its parent star.

On November 27, Solar Orbiter will make a final flyby of Earth, coming just under 300 miles from the surface, kicking off the start of its main mission. 

Even though both spacecraft will be flying within a few thousand miles of Venus and just a day apart, they will be separated by over 350,000 miles of open space

Both NASA and the European Space Agency are sending spacecraft to study Venus in more detail in the 2030s, where they will explore how it became so different to the Earth, despite having a similar origin

It will continue to make regular flybys of Venus to progressively increase its orbit inclination to best observe the sun’s uncharted polar regions.

Solar scientists say understanding and imaging the polar regions of our star is key to understanding its 11 year activity cycle. 

Both NASA and the European Space Agency are sending spacecraft to study Venus in more detail in the 2030s, where they will explore how it became so different to the Earth, despite having a similar origin. 

ESA’S SOLAR ORBITER: THE BRITISH BUILT SPACECRAFT WILL BE THE FIRST TO CAPTURE IMAGES OF THE SUN’S POLAR REGIONS

Solar Orbiter is a European Space Agency mission with support from NASA to explore the Sun and effect our host star has on the solar system – including Earth.

Solar Orbiter (artist’s impression) is a European Space Agency mission to explore the sun and its effect on the solar system. Its launch is planned for 2020 from Cape Canaveral in Florida, USA

The satellite launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida in February 2020 and reached its first close approach to the Sun in June 2020.

It was built in Stevenage, England and is loaded with a carefully selected set of 10 telescopes and direct sensing instruments.

Solar Orbiter will fly within 26 million miles (43 million km) of the solar surface to closely inspect our star’s poles.

Scientists are investigating how the sun’s violent outer atmosphere, also known as its corona, forms.

It was built in Stevenage, England and is loaded with a carefully selected set of 10 telescopes and direct sensing instruments 

This is the region from which ‘solar wind’ – storms of charged particles that can disrupt electronics on Earth – are blown out into space.

Through Solar Orbiter, researchers hope to unravel what triggers solar storms to help better predict them in future.

The Solar Orbiter’s heat shields are expected to reach temperatures of up to 600C (1,112F) during its closest flybys.

It will work closely with Nasa’s Parker Solar Probe, which launched in August 2018, and is also studying the sun’s corona.

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