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Solar Orbiter Is Now Halfway Between the Sun and Earth

The Solar Orbiter spacecraft, a joint mission of the European Space Agency and NASA, is officially halfway between our planet and the Sun. The spacecraft is currently 46.6 million miles from our host star. The spacecraft began its scientific observations in November 2021 and will continue its comments on their way closer and closer to the Sun.

Being situated so neatly between Earth and the Sun, the probe gives researchers a unique opportunity to study space weather. Space weather is a feature of the solar wind, a steady stream of charged particles from the Sun that generates aurorae and occasionally disrupts electronics on Earth.

Solar Orbiter is taking an indirect route to the Sun, but it’s (counterintuitively) saving energy by doing so. The orbiter is capitalizing on the gravitational pulls of Earth and Venus to slingshot itself inward. Besides providing great photo opportunities, these gravity assist maneuvers reduce the amount of fuel necessary to propel spacecraft, saving precious payload space.

Nearly 50 million miles on the space odometer doesn’t sound like much until you remember that the Webb telescope only had to trek 1 million miles to its observation point in deep space. The orbiter’s current proximity to Earth and the Sun lets it gather valuable data on how the solar wind blows through our solar system. Combining Solar Orbiter observations with data from spacecraft like IRIS and the ESA’s SOHO will give a complete picture of the wind; like buoys in a sea of solar particles, the dispersed spacecraft will provide a dynamic look at space weather.

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