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it Is a unique encounter. The Solar Orbiter , a european ship launched last February 10, and who is currently on the way to the Sun, has started to cross the tail of the comet Atlas, an adventure that will take a few days. The engine still had not amongst its functions, to take scientific data, but the experts of the mission have worked to ensure that their four most relevant instruments are powered up during the visit.

Solar Orbiter is still in a phase called commissioning service, in which scientists and engineers test their operation. It was not until mid-June that the ship had to be fully functional, but the discovery of the encounter with the comet has advance the awakening. It is not for less, because that cross by chance is the tail of one of these objects is not typical in a space mission. Has only happened six times before and in all cases it was learned after the event. This will be the first time that is predicted in advance by Geraint Jones of the Space Sciences Laboratory Mullard from UCL, Uk, who noticed what was going to happen and warned the THAT.

The Solar Orbiter is equipped with a set of ten instruments on remote and in-situ to investigate the Sun and the flow of charged particles released into space: the solar wind. Fortunately, as explained from the ESA in a press release, the four instruments on-board are also perfect to detect the tails of the comet because they measure the conditions around the spacecraft, so that could return data on the dust grains and the electrically charged particles emitted by the comet. These emissions create the two tails of the comet: the tail of dust left in the orbit of the comet and the tail of ions that points directly at the Sun.

The Hubble space telescope captures the breakup of the comet Atlas – THAT

Solar Orbiter, to 44 million kilometres from Atlas, just cross your tail of ions (from 31 may to 1 June), and will do the same with the tail of dust on the 6th of June. If the tail ions is dense enough, the magnetometer of the Orbiter Solar (MAG) could detect the variation of the interplanetary magnetic field due to its interaction with the ions in the tail of the comet, while the Analyzer of Solar Wind (SWA) could directly capture some of the particles of the tail.

When Solar Orbiter crossing the tail of dust, depending on its density, which is extremely difficult to predict, it is possible that one or more grains of small dust hit the spacecraft at speeds of tens of kilometers per second. While this does not pose a significant risk, the dust grains are vaporizarán in the impact, forming small clouds of gas or plasma with an electric charge, which could be detected by the instrument Radio and Plasma Waves (RPW).

“An unexpected encounter, as this provides a mission with unique opportunities and challenges, but that is good! Opportunities such as this are part of the adventure of science”, says Günther Hasinger, the director of Science of ESA. “We are ready for whatever the comet ATLAS has to say to us,” adds Daniel Müller, Project scientist of ESA’s Solar Orbiter.

And what is it that you are going to find the ship? Atlas was discovered on December 28, 2019. During the following months, it lit up so much that astronomers wondered if it would be visible to the naked eye in may. Unfortunately, at the beginning of April the comet was fragmented. As a result, its brightness also decreased significantly, preventing the show. A fragmentation additional to mid-may, declined even further the kite, which makes it less likely to be detected by Solar Orbiter.

“With each encounter with a comet, we learn more about these intriguing items. If Solar Orbiter detects the presence of the comet Atlas, will learn more about how they interact with the solar wind, and we can verify, for example, if our expectations of the behavior of the tail of dust are consistent with our models”, explains the researcher. “All missions are with kites provide pieces of the puzzle”.

Solar Orbiter is currently circling our star between the orbits of Venus and Mercury, with its first perihelion, which will take place on the 15th of June, about 77 million kilometers from the Sun. In the next few years, will come much more within the orbit of Mercury, about 42 million kilometers of the solar surface. Meanwhile, the comet Atlas will already be there, near its own perihelion, which is expected to be may 31, to about 37 million kilometers from the Sun.

“This crossing queue is also exciting because it will happen for the first time at distances so close to the Sun, with the nucleus of the comet within the orbit of Mercury,” says Yannis Zouganelis, scientific assistant of the project of the ESA for the Orbiter Solar. Looking at an object frozen in place from the scorching sun is certainly a thrilling and unexpected for that Solar Orbiter begins its science mission.