ESA is currently operating a scientific mission in space using the Solar Orbiter known as Solo by the team that operates it. The spacecraft has been in orbit for a year, having been launched on February 10, 2020. Its mission is to take images of the sun and observe the solar wind while trying to unravel many remaining mysteries about the solar cycle.
The mission team says Solo has taken some of the best images of the sun ever made, showing small solar flares called bonfires near the surface. One of the most interesting aspects about the design of a spacecraft is that it uses a type of prehistoric cave pigment as a coating to withstand the incredible temperatures of up to 520 degrees Celsius generated by the sun.
The mission entered an exciting phase, with Solo’s orbit currently lagging behind the sun. A few days ago, the apparent angle seen from Earth between the Solar Orbiter and the Sun began to drop below five degrees. This phenomenon is known as the “conjunction season” and will last until mid-February.
During this time, the sun’s energy and unpredictability make it difficult for radio antennas on Earth to communicate with the spacecraft because they need to point close to the sun to contact the orbiter. During this time, the signals will not be reliable and the data will not be able to be sent or received at a very high speed. Mission controllers will be able to receive data at about 255 bits per second or send signals at about 7.8 bits per second.
The team also warns that the radio link can be lost entirely if the Sun has any particular energy emissions. The mission planners knew that this would happen during the orbit of Solo’s sun, and it was planned. The spacecraft can operate its instruments autonomously and store the data collected on board to be sent back to Earth later, when possible.