ESA's riskiest flyby

Thu, 25 Nov 2021 01:30:00 GMT
ESA Top News

During the upcoming flyby, Solar Orbiter is estimated to pass just 460 km from Earth's surface at its closest approach - about 30 kilometres above the path of the International Space Station.

Earth observation missions spend their entire life in low-Earth orbit - the most debris-filled region of space, and while they perform 'collision avoidance manoeuvres' a few times per year, Solar Orbiter will spend only a few minutes here as it heads towards closest approach and then leaves again, onward to Venus.

Hubble, the NASA/ESA Space Telescope, has spent 31 years in Earth orbit at an altitude of around 547 kilometres.

While the risk to Solar Orbiter during its upcoming Earth flyby is small, it's still "Non-zero".

Past Earth flybys, for example, when Cassini/Huygens flew by Earth in 1999, as Rosetta returned three times in 2005, 2007 and 2009, and Juno swung by in 2013, there were fewer satellites, fewer debris and no 'mega constellations' in orbit.

A flyby of Earth today, while still safe, is riskier than it used to be.

About seven to ten days before the flyby, ESA's Space Debris Office will start to perform risk assessments based on Solar Orbiter's trajectory and the expected position of catalogued objects in orbit around Earth.

Once Solar Orbiter comes up from low-Earth orbit and passes above geostationary orbit it is out of the risk zone.

While Solar Orbiter zips by, passing just momentarily through Earth's orbital highways, it's an important reminder that the space debris problem is unique to Earth, of our own making, and ours to clean up.

Find out how ESA is working to prevent further debris from being created and clean up what is already out there.

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