Solar Orbiter spotted with the Schmidt two days after launch

Solar Orbiter GIF animationFebruary 12th 2020

Using the Calar Alto Schmidt telescope remotely from Italy, a team from the Planetary Defence Office of the European Spatial Agency (ESA) managed to observe the Solar Orbiter satellite and booster two days after launch from Cape Canaveral. The observations were obtained in coordination with ESA’s Near-Earth Object Coordination Centre (NEOCC).

Despite a very bright (nearly Full) Moon these days, the quality of the sky and of the telescopes at Calar Alto has allowed Marco Micheli, an astronomer at ESA, to recover Solar Orbiter -- a joint ESA/NASA mission -- well after its launch in the morning of February 10, 2020 with an Atlas V rocket. After the ESOC's Mission Analysis team computed an accurate post-launch trajectory, Micheli pointed the Schmidt telescope to the expected position, and Solar Orbiter was indeed recovered in the field.

First on February 10th, around 20h15 (CET), that is 20 hours after launch: the satellite itself was detected like a faint, fast moving point-like source in the field, as visible in this 10-min sequence (made of eight frames of 10-s exposure each, using the new Schmidt camera). Solar orbiter was then located more than 300,000 km away -- a bit closer than the Moon.

Soler Orbiter Booster Animation Gif

On February 11th, Marco Micheli was able to spot again the satellite. Amazingly, the ESA’s team also caught the booster of the Atlas V rocket, thanks to the large field of view of the Schmidt telescope. “The telescope performed very well tonight, and I was able to catch Solar Orbiter again, and also its booster this time.” says Micheli. The booster was about half-a-degree (the Full Moon apparent size on the sky) away from the satellite. “It was to the North of the main spacecraft, not where I would have expected it along the line of motion” he adds. The rapid light variation visible in the booster animation shows how fast this piece was rotating, after being ejected from the main Atlas V rocket only a couple of minutes after launch.

Solar Orbiter is now on its way towards Venus, where it will perform the first gravity assist maneuver around Christmas day, 2020, before heading finally to the Sun. By 2022 and for a nominal duration of seven years, it will give us for the first time a close-in view of the poles of our star, so important for the understanding of the solar wind and the magnetic field, which have strong consequences on our life (and telecommunication system) on Earth. Solar Orbiter includes the SO/PHI instrument co-led by a team from IAA/CSIC in Granada.


Calar Alto Observatory is one of the infrastructures that belong to the national map of Unique Scientific and Technical Infrastructures (Spanish acronym: ICTS), approved on November 6th, 2018, by the Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Council

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