Solar Orbiter returns to Earth before starting its main science mission

(20 Nov 2021) ESA's Solar Orbiter is returning to Earth for a flyby before starting its main science mission to explore the Sun and its connection to 'space weather'. During the flyby Solar Orbiter must pass through the clouds of space debris that surround our planet, making this manoeuvre the riskiest flyby yet for a science mission.

Solar Orbiter's Earth flyby takes place on 27 November. At 0430 UTC on that day, the spacecraft will be at its closest approach, just 460 km above North Africa and the Canary Islands. This is almost as close as the orbit of the International Space Station.

The manoeuvre is essential to decrease the energy of the spacecraft and line it up for its next close pass of the Sun but it comes with a risk. The spacecraft must pass through two orbital regions, each of which is populated with space debris.

The first is the geostationary ring of satellites at 36,000 km, and the second is the collection of low Earth orbits at around 400 km. As a result, there is a small risk of a collision. Solar Orbiter's operations team are monitoring the situation very closely and will alter the spacecraft's trajectory if it appears to be in any danger.

Reference: ESA PR

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