US, WASHINGTON (ORDO NEWS) — Last month, Comet ATLAS shattered observers’ hopes for a brilliant flyby when it began to collapse, but scientists have discovered a new opportunity to study its wreckage.
This opportunity comes from the trajectory of the Solar Orbiter, created in partnership between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). While the spacecraft was designed to focus on studying the Sun, it turns out that the instruments it carries aboard could also gather valuable information about the tail of Comet ATLAS with an unprecedented observational power.
“If the Solar Orbiter instruments detect material from the ATLAS comet, this will be the first predicted intersection of the comet’s tail with an active spacecraft that has the appropriate instruments for detecting cometary material,” scientists wrote in a new article exploring this possibility.
Astronomers first discovered a block of ice officially named C / 2019 Y4, but now known as Comet ATLAS, on December 28, 2019, using the observatory in Hawaii. Over the next few months, the weak comet appeared unusually quickly, giving rise to hopes that the ice ball could put on a spectacle when it is closer to the sun, in late May.
Instead, in April, Comet ATLAS began to fall apart. By the end of the month, according to photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, the comet totaled more than half a dozen debris. For all observers, this news was a real bummer.
Meanwhile, on February 9, Solar Orbiter launched a mission to measure highly charged particles, called plasma, in the outer atmosphere of the Sun, and also removes the poles of the Sun. Right now, scientists are warming up the spacecraft’s instruments, while the Solar Orbiter flies up to Venus for a gravitational maneuver that will bring the probe’s orbit closer to the Sun.
When scientists compared the trajectories of the two objects, they found a surprising coincidence: the solar orbiting vehicle should go through the tail of the comet ATLAS in late May or early June.
They decided to check their calculations, because the lead author of the new study also leads a new ESA mission called Comet Interceptor, which starts in 2028. The spacecraft will hover in a stable orbit far from the Earth, waiting for untouched comets to fly to the inner solar system. When scientists discover such a promising target, the miniature probe will separate from the main spacecraft and approach a comet to study it close.
Such pending orbit parking is crucial, as time is of the essence. But it turns out that Solar Orbiter imitated the same scheme – quite by accident.
Scientists estimate that on May 31 or June 1, a solar orbital vehicle can cross the outer ion tail of Comet ATLAS, where charged particles emanating from the Sun ionize the comet gas. If the comet, by then, continues to lose enough material, two devices on the spacecraft may be able to detect ions or disturbances in the magnetic field from the comet.
Then, on June 6, the device must go through the dust field left by the ATLAS comet about 2.5 weeks before. Depending on the amount of dust lost by the comet, Solar Orbiter devices will be able to detect this dust crashing into the spacecraft, or to identify some phenomena in a magnetic field called the extended interplanetary field.
If Solar Orbiter still succeeds in catching any data from the ATLAS comet, then luck may turn out to be just a harbinger of quick, close observations of comets in space in the future.
The study is described in an article published May 5 in the journal Research Notes of the American Astronomical Society.
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