The European Space Agency (ESA) and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) have announced plans to launch the Proba-3 spacecraft in 2024. This ambitious mission aims to study the Sun’s corona and inner heliosphere by creating an artificial solar eclipse in space.
Revolutionary Mission to Observe the Sun’s Corona
Proba-3 consists of two separate spacecraft that will fly in precise formation to block the Sun’s light and create an artificial total solar eclipse lasting several hours. This will allow the spacecraft to observe the Sun’s faint corona and inner solar atmosphere in unprecedented detail for much longer than is possible during a typical solar eclipse from Earth.
The mission is being jointly developed by ESA and ISRO, combining expertise from the European and Indian space industries. ISRO will provide the larger “occulter” satellite to block the Sun’s light, while ESA is building the smaller “coronagraph” satellite that will make observations.
Some key features and objectives of the Proba-3 mission include:
- Creating an artificial eclipse lasting up to 3 hours to enable extended observations of the Sun’s corona
- Studying the origin of the solar wind and how it is accelerated in the corona
- Investigating the evolution of coronal mass ejections that can affect Earth
- Learning more about the structure and dynamics of the magnetized solar atmosphere
Ambitious Engineering to Align Two Separate Spacecraft
The Proba-3 spacecraft must fly in careful formation at distances around 144 meters apart for the artificial eclipse to succeed. This requires pioneering guidance, navigation and control systems to align the spacecraft to precision better than 1 millimeter.
Special thrusters and sensors will provide real-time positional adjustments to counter the effects of gravity and solar radiation pressure. If successful, the technologies demonstrated by Proba-3 could enable other future formation flying missions.
|Larger spacecraft to block Sun’s light
|Science instruments to study corona
Launch Scheduled for 2024
ESA has announced that Proba-3 is now officially approved for implementation, with the scheduled launch date set for 2024. ISRO will provide the launch service using its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket.
The mission’s two spacecraft will undergo critical design reviews over the next two years before entering full construction and testing. Following launch, they will take up their specialized eclipse formation, beginning the primary science mission in early 2025.
Paving the Way for Compelling New Solar Science
As humanity’s understanding of the Sun and its dynamic effects on Earth and technological systems continues to grow, Proba-3 will contribute some key pieces of the puzzle.
The artificial eclipses created by the mission are expected to transform our understanding of the Sun’s corona and inner heliosphere environment. This will lead to more accurate space weather prediction models and may shed new light on historical solar mysteries like the properties of solar eruptions and coronal heating processes.
By proving the immense potential of an artificial eclipse achieved with precision formation flying, Proba-3 will also inspire new generations of advanced space systems for studying our closest star. The engineering knowledge gained will provide valuable experience for future formation flying concepts to image exoplanets or probe other regions around large cosmic light sources.
What Happens Next
With the formal project adoption and target 2024 launch timeframe now established, the hard work begins to transform Proba-3 from concept to reality over the next two years:
ESA and partner contractors will push forward on finalizing the design and commencing hardware production for both science and formation flying elements of the spacecraft system.
ISRO teams will work in parallel to complete preparations for the PSLV launcher that will carry both Proba-3 spacecraft into their initial low-Earth orbit.
Extensive testing and rehearsals on Earth must verify all parts of this complex mission function correctly before launch. Artificial eclipse experiments will trial aligning two large balloons 150 meters apart using miniature coronagraph instruments.
If everything goes to plan, exciting new discoveries about our star await when Proba-3 deploys in space in 2024-2025 to demonstrate this pioneering solar coronagraph technology!
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