Solar Orbiter, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) probe to work in tandem with NASA Parker Solar Probe in studying the inner regions surrounding the Sun, will make last flyby of Earth on November 27, 2021, thus putting it into its planned science orbit.
While the press release gives a good overview of the mission, it focuses on the risk during that fly-by of the spacecraft hitting something during its close approach.
Solar Orbiter’s Earth flyby takes place on 27 November. At 04:30 GMT (05:30 CET) 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.
While there is a risk, it seems to me that ESA is taking advantage of the recent news outburst in connection with the Russian anti-sat test and the space junk it created to sell this mission. The risk of impact during this fly-by is very low, especially in the geostationary ring.
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