For the previous 17 years, a lone spacecraft has been following Earth’s tracks in its orbit across the Solar and capturing unprecedented views of our host star. Now, STEREO-A has lastly caught up with its residence planet, lapping us in our cosmic path and assembly the Earth for a short rendezvous.

On Saturday, NASA’s STEREO-A spacecraft is scheduled for its first Earth flyby since its launch on October 25, 2006, the area company revealed. The flyby just isn’t solely an opportunity for the spacecraft to reunite with Earth, but additionally supplies a uncommon alternative for STEREO-A to collaborate with different NASA missions to view the Solar in new and thrilling methods.

The STEREO (Photo voltaic TErrestrial RElations Observatory) mission really began off with twin spacecraft: the main STEREO-A (for forward) and STEREO-B, which lagged behind. The 2 spacecraft offered the primary stereoscopic, or multiple-perspective, view of the Solar. Sooner or later, the spacecraft even achieved a 180 diploma separation from one another of their orbits, giving us a simultaneous view of the star as a whole sphere for the primary time.

“Previous to that we had been ‘tethered’ to the Solar-Earth line – we solely noticed one aspect of the Solar at a time,” Lika Guhathakurta, STEREO program scientist at NASA, stated in a press release. “STEREO broke that tether and gave us a view of the Solar as a three-dimensional object.”

This composite view reveals the Solar because it appeared on January 31, 2011, with simultaneous views from each STEREO spacecraft, in addition to NASA’s Photo voltaic Dynamics Observatory, permitting scientists to seize virtually the complete Solar directly with solely a small hole in knowledge.
Gif: NASA/Goddard/STEREO

In 2014, STEREO-B sadly went silent after a deliberate reset, and STEREO-A was compelled to go solo. Throughout its upcoming flyby, nonetheless, STEREO-A will as soon as once more work as a part of a group. The spacecraft will synthesize its views with the Photo voltaic and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a joint mission between NASA and the European Area Company, in addition to NASA’s Photo voltaic Dynamics Observatory (SDO).

The collaboration between the photo voltaic missions will enable for a multi-perspective view of the Solar, or stereoscopic imaginative and prescient. It’s just like how our brains examine photos from every eye and use variations between these photos to distinguish between nearer and farther objects, creating depth notion. The info gathered by the three missions will enable scientists to collect three-dimensional info that might in any other case be misplaced in two-dimensional photos of the Solar.

The group of scientists behind the STEREO mission are additionally hoping to check a principle about coronal loops, curved arcs of the magnetic subject that pops up by way of the seen floor of the Solar. “There’s a latest concept that coronal loops may simply be optical illusions,” Terry Kucera, STEREO venture scientist at NASA’s Goddard Area Flight Middle, stated in a press release. “Should you take a look at them from a number of factors of view, [the answer] ought to turn into extra obvious.”

In the course of the months earlier than and after Saturday’s flyby, STEREO-A may also be hit by the plumes of photo voltaic materials which can be directed in direction of Earth, and can measure these coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Because the photo voltaic materials travels from the Solar in direction of Earth, it should hit STEREO-A in addition to SOHO and SDO. Previous to this flight, coronal mass ejections have solely been felt by one spacecraft at a time. 

“It’s just like the parable concerning the blind males and the elephant—the one who feels the legs says ‘it’s like a tree trunk,’ and the one who feels the tail says ‘it’s like a snake,’” Toni Galvin, a professor on the College of New Hampshire and principal investigator for one in all STEREO-A’s devices, stated in a press release. “That’s what we’re caught with proper now with CMEs, as a result of we sometimes solely have one or two spacecraft proper subsequent to one another measuring it.”

The final time the STEREO spacecraft was near Earth in 2006, the Solar was in its photo voltaic minimal, or the purpose throughout its 11-year cycle with low exercise. The Solar is now approaching its photo voltaic most, and the star has been fairly full of life as of late. Earlier this week, two massive solar flares erupted from the Sun and disrupted radio alerts within the U.S.

“On this part of the photo voltaic cycle, STEREO-A goes to expertise a basically totally different Solar,” Guhathakurta stated. “There may be a lot data to be gained from that.”

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