Coronal Mass Ejection Hits Solar Orbiter Spacecraft Before Venus Gravity-Assist Flyby

In the early hours of Sunday, September 4, Solar Orbiter flew by gravity-assist maneuver that alters the spacecraft’s orbit, which will get it even closer to the Sun. As if trying to attract the orbiter’s attention as it cozied up to another body in the Solar System, the Sun flung an enormous ‘coronal mass ejection‘ straight at the spacecraft and planet. It was just two days before their closest approach – and the data are revealing.

On August 30, 2022, a large coronal mass ejection erupted from the Sun in the direction of Venus. Not long later, the powerful storm arrived at the second planet from the Sun. As the data continues to come in from Solar Orbiter, this strike reveals why ‘in situ’ monitoring of space weather and its effects on the bodies, and spacecraft, of the Solar System are so important.

Artist’s impression of Solar Orbiter making a flyby at Venus. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Fortunately, there was no damage or no negative effects on the spacecraft. Indeed, the ESA-

So far, Solar Orbiter has been confined to the same plane as the planets, but from February 2025 onwards, each encounter with Venus will increase its orbital inclination, causing it to ‘leap’ up from the plane of the Solar System to get a view of the Sun’s mysterious polar regions.

This third flyby of Venus took place on Sunday at 01:26

Solar Orbiter Flight Control Team during pre-launch simulations in 2020. Credit: ESA

“The close approach went exactly to plan, thanks to a great deal of planning from our colleagues in Flight Dynamics and the diligent care of the Flight Control Team,” explains Jose-Luis Pellon-Bailon, Solar Orbiter Operations Manager.

“By trading ‘orbital energy’ with Venus, Solar Orbiter has used the planet’s gravity to change its orbit without the need for masses of expensive fuel. When it returns to the Sun, the spacecraft’s closest approach will be about 4.5 million km (2.8 million miles) closer than before.”

Understanding particles that pose a radiation risk

Data beamed back to Earth since Solar Orbiter encountered the solar storm shows how its local environment changed as the large CME whooshed by. Although some instruments had to be turned off during its close approach to Venus, in order to protect them from stray sunlight reflected off of the planet’s surface, Solar Orbiter’s ‘in situ’ instruments remained on, recording an increase in solar energetic particles, among other things.

This composite image shows a SOHO image of the Sun and an artist’s impression of Earth’s magnetosphere. Credit: Magnetosphere: NASA, the Sun: ESA/NASA – SOHO

Particles, mostly protons and electrons, but also some ionized atoms like Helium, are constantly emitted by the Sun. When particularly large flares and ejections of ten science instruments are delivering new insight into how the 11-year cycle of solar activity works. Ultimately, these findings will help us better forecast periods of stormy space weather and protect planet Earth from the Sun’s violent outbursts.

Solar Orbiter’s suite of ten science instruments that will study the Sun. There are two types: in situ and remote sensing. The in situ instruments measure the conditions around the spacecraft itself. The remote-sensing instruments measure what is happening at large distances away. Together, both sets of data can be used to piece together a more complete picture of what is happening in the Sun’s corona and the solar wind. Credit: ESA-S.Poletti

Goodbye, halo?

This recent CME illustrates a difficulty in space weather observations. As seen in this footage from

Large coronal mass ejection (CME) was recorded by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) on August 30, 2022. The CME struck ESA’s Solar Orbiter spacecraft as it performed a flyby of Venus. Credit: ESA/NASA SOHO

It is tricky to determine if coronal mass ejections are coming towards Earth or moving away when viewed from Earth, because in both cases it appears to be expanding. One of the many benefits of the coming Vigil mission is that by combining the images taken from Earth’s direction and Vigil’s position at the ‘side’ of the Sun, the fifth Lagrange point, it will be easy and reliable to distinguish between an oncoming or departing storm.

Space weather gets deep

The Sun wields its influence on all the bodies of the Solar System. It’s the reason why no life could survive on the inner planets, as the sun makes their temperatures too hot and stripped away their atmospheres long ago.

As we venture from Earth to the Moon, it’s vital that we understand how space weather can affect human bodies, robots, communication systems, and plants and animals.

Solar Orbiter’s stellar views hint at Vigil’s future. Credit: ESA

As well as a wide range of tools to understand the Sun’s effect on Earth’s infrastructure, ESA’s Space Weather Service Network currently alerts teams flying missions throughout the Solar System of extreme space weather, with forecasts for Mercury, Venus, and

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