In rare encounter, ESA’s Solar Orbiter set to pass through Comet ATLAS’ tail
The European Space Agency (ESA’s) Solar Orbiter will pass through the tail of Comet ATLAS during the next few days, the agency said on Friday. This will allow scientists to conduct some ‘bonus science’.
The Solar Orbiter is a spacecraft designed to observe the sun in incredible, scorching detail, according to space.com.
Launched in February this year, the spacecraft, an ESA-led mission with strong NASA participation, the spacecraft’s was on a mission to provide the first views of the Sun’s uncharted polar regions, giving unprecedented insight into how the earth’s parent star works.
A chance encounter with comet ATLAS, however, wasn’t part of Solar Orbiter’s original mission.
According to ESA, a space mission’s flyby through a comet’s tail is a rare event, something that has been recorded only six times previously and even then these encounters were discovered in the spacecraft data after the event.
Solar Orbiter’s upcoming crossing is the first to be predicted in advance.
And after being alerted to the opportunity by Geraint Jones of Britain’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, mission experts have worked to ensure that the four most relevant instruments on Solar Orbiter will be switched on during the unique encounter, ESA said.
Elaborating on the significance of this encounter, the agency’s director of science, Gunther Hasinger said that an unexpected encounter provides unique opportunities and challenges.
“An unexpected encounter like this provides a mission with unique opportunities and challenges, but that’s good! Chances like this are all part of the adventure of science,” Hasinger said.
According to ESA, Solar Orbiter will cross the ion tail of Comet ATLAS on 31 May–1 June, and the dust tail on 6 June.
Geriant Jones says that if Solar Orbiter detects Comet ATLAS’ presence, then “we’ll learn more about how comets interact the solar wind.”
“With each encounter with a comet, we learn more about these intriguing objects. If Solar Orbiter detects Comet ATLAS’s presence, then we’ll learn more about how comets interact with the solar wind, and we can check, for example, whether our expectations of dust tail behaviour agree with our models,” he explains.
“All missions that encounter comets provide pieces of the jigsaw puzzle,” Geriant added.