Solar Probe Hit by Massive Plasma Blast on Its Way to the Sun

Solar Orbiter was hit by a coronal mass ejection from the Sun, and it has the receipts to prove it.
Solar_Orbiter_Venus_flyby
Solar Orbiter Venus flyby

A solar probe took a direct hit from the Sun this weekend after it ended up in the line of fire of a coronal mass ejection, a type of massive plasma blast from our star, according to the European Space Agency (ESA). 

Launched in 2020, ESA’s Solar Orbiter is the most complex laboratory ever sent to study the Sun, and will provide the first views of the star’s poles when it arrives in its operational orbit. But on Sunday, the spacecraft experienced its Sun’s raw power from afar when it was rocked by an energetic burst of charged particles that erupted from the star on Aug. 30. 

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Solar Orbiter is built to withstand these tempestuous bursts and was not damaged by the strike; indeed, the spacecraft was even able to record images of the ejection and measure conditions in the fallout. The spacecraft was hit while swinging close to the planet Venus, which the mission uses as a gravity assist to fly closer and closer to the Sun.

“As if trying to get the orbiter’s attention as it cosied up to another body in the Solar System, the Sun flung an enormous ‘coronal mass ejection’ straight at the spacecraft and planet just two days before their closest approach—and the data are revealing,” ESA said in a statement.

“While 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 among other things an increase in solar energetic particles,” the statement noted.

The Sun regularly launches these ejections into space, but their exact origins and dynamics are shrouded in mystery. Solar Orbiter is tasked, in part, with shedding light on these bursts, both as a matter of scientific curiosity and because these events can wreak havoc on Earth. Solar storms can scramble spacecraft, knock out electrical grids, and threaten the safety of astronauts beyond our planet, adding a practical urgency to the open questions about the Sun’s tempestuous moods.  

“Improving our understanding of CMEs and tracking their progress as they breeze through the Solar System is a big part of Solar Orbiter’s mission,” ESA said. “By observing CMEs, the solar wind and the Sun’s magnetic field, the spacecraft’s ten science instruments are providing new insight into how the 11-year cycle of solar activity works. Ultimately, these findings will help us better predict periods of stormy space weather and protect planet Earth from the Sun’s violent outbursts.

Solar Orbiter, which has already snapped stunning images of the Sun, is part of a new caderie of solar missions that are revolutionizing our perspective on our star. NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, launched in 2018, has flown closer to the Sun than any other spacecraft, while the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawaii, which started science observations in February, is now the most powerful Sun-watcher on Earth. 

With these next-generation observatories, scientists hope to unlock the many secrets of our Sun, the center of our solar system and nurturer of life on our planet.