Two spaceships fly previous Venus solely 33 hours aside

When Longfellow wrote about “Ships Going By At Night” in 1863, he probably wasn’t thinking of satellites passing near Venus. He probably wouldn’t have considered 575,000 km to be “temporary” either, but on the scale of interplanetary exploration, it might as well be. And that is exactly what two satellites will do near Venus in the next few days – two flybys of the planet within 33 hours in a row.

The two spacecraft in question are Solar Orbiter and BepiColombo. Both do not focus on the Venus system itself, but simply use the planet as a gravity support to get to their final destinations – the poles of the sun and Mercury, respectively. It just so happens that they pass our sister planet around the same time.

Depiction of BepiColombo’s flyby of Venus.
Credit – ESA / ATG Media Lab / SciTechDaily YouTube Channel

This is not Solar Orbiter’s first carousel with the planet as Venus was previously used as a gravity assist and there may be 6 more to come. All of these aids are designed to help the probe go where no machine has been before – high enough above and below the sun to get clear images of its poles, from which it hopes to get more information about the solar cycle.

BepiColombo, on the other hand, is on its second and final flyby of Venus, though it has much more support from Mercury itself before it finally settles into stable orbit in 2025. It will pass much closer to Venus than its travel companion. with an altitude of 550 km compared to 7,995 km for Solar Orbiter.

Depiction of the second (of possibly six) Venus flybys of the Solar Orbiter.
Credit – ESA / ATG Media Lab / SciTechDaily YouTube Channel

Unfortunately, the distance between them is too great to expect a picture of one craft of the other. In fact, this time around, Solar Orbiter will not be taking any visible-light images of Venus as the probe itself must remain facing the sun. BepiColombo will not be able to point its main camera at the planet either, but two of its three “surveillance cameras” will snap as it drives by. In fact, the spacecraft could also capture its own antenna and solar cells in the image. Although the images only have a resolution of 1024 × 1024, they will gradually be sent back to earth after the BepiColombo’s flyby on August 10th.

Image of the first flyby of the Venus of BepiColombo. The same cameras will be available this time.
Credit – ESA / BepiColombo / MTM

However, other non-visual instruments on both spacecraft will be in full swing. These include Solar Orbiter’s SoloHI imager, which is typically used to image the solar wind, magnetic field sensors, and plasma sensors. Additionally, there is already a Venus orbiter around the planet – Akatsuki by JAXA – that can collect additional data at the same time, so scientists can try to collect data points from many different physical locations as well as sensor modalities.

UT video of the Solar Orbiter mission.

Close flyby like this is a great side benefit of the real science that these orbiters will pursue once they reach their final destination. It also provides them and their handlers with a good warm up to get the nervousness out of their system. The fact that they pass each other so close together on their journeys to their final destinations makes the story all the more interesting.

Learn more:
ESA – ESA is preparing for the double flyby of Venus – Solar Orbiter and BepiColombo make history with a double flyby of Venus
New Atlas – Venus receives two visitors from Earth next week

Mission statement:
Representation of BepiColombo & Solar Orbiter passing Venus in quick succession.
Credit – ESA

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