Solar Orbiter Will Be Paying a Christmas Visit to Venus

Artist’s impression of the Solar Orbiter as it flies past Venus. ESA / ATG Medialab

The Solar Orbiter of the European Space Agency (ESA) visited the sun up close after its launch in February this year. However, the researchers would like the orbiter to get even closer in order to achieve that the orbiter receive a thrust from another planet – past Venus to use the planet’s gravity to put it on a path that is still closer to the sun. This means that the orbiter will be swung by Venus on its first flyby this Christmas.

Solar Orbiter will be closest to Venus at 4:39 a.m. on Sunday, December 27th, when it will be just 4,600 miles from the planet’s cloud covers. The ship will make several such flybys over the next decade, coming closer and closer each time, and each time being sent into orbit that also brings it closer to the sun.

The researchers responsible for Solar Orbiter are mainly focused on understanding more about the Sun, but they don’t miss this chance to study Venus as well. As the vehicle passes the planet, it will use several of its instruments to record data.

Solar Orbiter has an advanced camera that can photograph the sun closer than ever before. However, Venus cannot be photographed with the camera because it must remain pointed at the sun. However, it can also use other instruments such as the magnetometer, radio and plasma wave sensors, and energetic particle detector. The idea is to use these instruments to measure the space around Venus and see what kind of magnetic, plasma and particle environment exists there.

Historically, Venus has tended to be overlooked as a research target compared to our other more popular planetary neighbor, Mars. This is partly because Venus is very difficult to study – it has thick clouds of sulfuric acid in its atmosphere that block the view of the surface from orbit. It’s also the hottest planet in the solar system, hotter than Mercury, which is closer to the sun. This is because the gases in the atmosphere hold the heat, which means the surface temperature is up to 480 degrees Celsius.

Recent evidence that bacterial life might be present in the Venusian clouds has revived interest in the planet. Suggestions for exploring it range from an armada of hot air balloons to sending stingray-inspired vehicles soaring through the atmosphere.

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