The ESA has announced that over the next few days, the Solar Orbiter will pass through the tails of comet Atlas. The Solar Orbiter only recently launched and wasn’t due to begin taking science data at this time. Mission controllers have worked to ensure that the four most relevant instruments will be switched on during the unique encounter.
The ESA Launched the Solar Orbiter on February 10, 2020. Since that launch, the team has been conducting a series of tests and set up routines known as commissioning. The completion of commissioning was set for June 15, allowing the spacecraft to be fully functional for its first close pass to the sun in mid-June.
The discovery of a chance encounter with the comet led the team to speed things up because flying through the tail of a comet is a rare event for a space mission. Passing through the tail of a comet has happened only six times before for missions that were not specifically searching for comets. Something setting this mission apart from others is that it’s the first to be predicted in advance.
The spacecraft will pass through the ion tail of the comet on May 31 through June 1. It will pass through the dust tail on June 6. If the comet’s ion tail is dense enough, the magnetometer could detect the variation of the interplanetary magnetic field because of its interaction with ions in the tail.
The Solar Wind Analyzer could directly capture some of the tail particles. It’s also possible that one or more tiny dust grains could hit the spacecraft at tens of kilometers per second. There’s no risk to the spacecraft from these dust grains, and the grains will vaporize on impact forming tiny clouds of electrically charged gas or plasma that could be detected by the Radio and Plasma Waves instrument. Scientists say they are ready for whatever Comet Atlas has to tell them.