ESA's Solar Orbiter will swing past Earth this week – sure hope nobody created a big cloud of space junk up there

Oh wait


Interview ESA's Solar Orbiter is to undertake a flyby of Earth, requiring a careful assessment of debris as it dips close to the orbit of the International Space Station (ISS) ahead of its main science mission.

The flyby is due to take place on the 26 and 27 of November.

The amount of debris on orbit was helpfully increased last week by Russia's anti-satellite missile demonstration, much to the consternation of NASA and other space agencies.

With the Solar Orbiter due to pass above North Africa and the Canary Islands at its closest approach on 27 November, it has to make it through two regions of potential space debris; geostationary orbit and low earth orbit.

"At 12km/s we'd be a really effective ASAT weapon," Daniel Lakey, Solar Orbiter spacecraft operations engineer at ESA tells The Reg, in reference to the speed at which the spacecraft will be barrelling along.

The team has already assessed if the first Trajectory Correction Manoeuvre (TCM) - or "TCM-3d" in spacecraft operations speak - needed adjusting. The good news was, following Tuesday's meeting, it didn't.

"The 'default' guidance profile option executed as planned instead," he says.

The first TCM window (aka TCM-6h) will occur just before midnight on 26 November, when the spacecraft will be just six hours from its closest approach to Earth.

"For the TCM-6h, FD [Flight Dynamics] will compute a series of alternative trajectories that will be checked by ESA's Space Debris Office against known objects, who'll report back on the likelihood of a collision," says Lakey.

Hopefully all will go well, despite the increasing count of debris around Earth, and an adjustment will not be required. As for what would trigger an all-hands-to-the-pumps moment, "2*10-5 for TCM-6h," he says. "If there's a likelihood of a collision greater than that, a CAM [Collision Avoidance Maneouvre] trajectory will be selected that has a lower chance of a collision and the lowest delta-V requirement."

If a change is needed to tweak the trajectory, the team will only have a matter of hours to put together the instructions and get them onboard the Solar Orbiter. It is, says Lakey, "about the quickest turnaround we can do."

"Because we always have a complete 'chain' of spacecraft attitude guidance onboard, we need to juggle with the new commands to make sure they don't clash with the old ones or end up with none at all," he says. "Both equally bad."

The trajectory was plotted years ago, and this flyby is required to decrease the energy of the spacecraft ahead of its next closest observation of the Sun.

In Deep Space, debris isn't something the team is too concerned with, however, now it has jumped to the top of the agenda. ESA has plenty of experience with dodging debris, although Lakey points out: "Unlike our friends next door in the Earth Observation division, things are complicated for us because of the inherent uncertainties in our trajectory and the time needed to process the tracking data."

"Although they are no doubt wondering why we're making such a fuss about doing a CAM, seeing as they do them with some regularity these days," he adds.

And the infamous missile shenanigans in orbit? "Whereas our colleagues in SDO [Space Debris Office] have not had their lives made any easier by the ASAT test, it doesn't change our plan – we're somewhat on rails at this point and will be hurtling past Earth at a height of about 450km at 04:30 on the 27th, come what may."

ESA's own figures put the altitude at 460km, to which Lakey says: "Flight Dynamics would be able to give an expected value to within some large number of decimal places but it would be relative to the centre of the Earth..."

As for the spacecraft itself, it remains in good health. The team is running well under fuel budget, although if it proves necessary to adjust the delta-V then that margin will start being eaten into. That said, the budget shouldn't be exceeded, "but ultimately yes, the less we fire the thrusters the less fuel we use."

The instruments are all collecting science, and the spacecraft is due to dip down to 0.32AU in March. The heat shield has also been performing well, "to the point we have developed a 'de-icing' manoeuvre to warm up the backside of the spacecraft," says Lakey. "Mooning the Sun, if you will."

Indeed, the mission is packed full of unknowns for ESA and Lakey tells us "there's a lot to learn about how to fly a spacecraft there."

The hope is that the mission will get extended. ESA's Mars Express is, after all, 18 years into a two-year mission (launched in 2003, it was only meant to operate for two years. The mission was recently extended to the end of 2022). This is assuming the Solar Orbiter doesn't hit anything as it passes Earth.

The team will be at the European Space Operations Centre, "watching the telemetry like hawks," says Lakey. "We're used to being hundreds of millions of kilometres away from Earth with long signal propagation delays, so it's quite novel for us to see the data coming down in real-time."

"If we had hatches we would be battening them down around now."

And if the worst should happen? "I don't think humanity has created any structure that would withstand a debris strike at the speeds we're going."

"I prefer not to think about it too much." ®

Similar topics


Other stories you might like

  • Lonestar plans to put datacenters in the Moon's lava tubes
    How? Founder tells The Register 'Robots… lots of robots'

    Imagine a future where racks of computer servers hum quietly in darkness below the surface of the Moon.

    Here is where some of the most important data is stored, to be left untouched for as long as can be. The idea sounds like something from science-fiction, but one startup that recently emerged from stealth is trying to turn it into a reality. Lonestar Data Holdings has a unique mission unlike any other cloud provider: to build datacenters on the Moon backing up the world's data.

    "It's inconceivable to me that we are keeping our most precious assets, our knowledge and our data, on Earth, where we're setting off bombs and burning things," Christopher Stott, founder and CEO of Lonestar, told The Register. "We need to put our assets in place off our planet, where we can keep it safe."

    Continue reading
  • Conti: Russian-backed rulers of Costa Rican hacktocracy?
    Also, Chinese IT admin jailed for deleting database, and the NSA promises no more backdoors

    In brief The notorious Russian-aligned Conti ransomware gang has upped the ante in its attack against Costa Rica, threatening to overthrow the government if it doesn't pay a $20 million ransom. 

    Costa Rican president Rodrigo Chaves said that the country is effectively at war with the gang, who in April infiltrated the government's computer systems, gaining a foothold in 27 agencies at various government levels. The US State Department has offered a $15 million reward leading to the capture of Conti's leaders, who it said have made more than $150 million from 1,000+ victims.

    Conti claimed this week that it has insiders in the Costa Rican government, the AP reported, warning that "We are determined to overthrow the government by means of a cyber attack, we have already shown you all the strength and power, you have introduced an emergency." 

    Continue reading
  • China-linked Twisted Panda caught spying on Russian defense R&D
    Because Beijing isn't above covert ops to accomplish its five-year goals

    Chinese cyberspies targeted two Russian defense institutes and possibly another research facility in Belarus, according to Check Point Research.

    The new campaign, dubbed Twisted Panda, is part of a larger, state-sponsored espionage operation that has been ongoing for several months, if not nearly a year, according to the security shop.

    In a technical analysis, the researchers detail the various malicious stages and payloads of the campaign that used sanctions-related phishing emails to attack Russian entities, which are part of the state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec Corporation.

    Continue reading
  • FTC signals crackdown on ed-tech harvesting kid's data
    Trade watchdog, and President, reminds that COPPA can ban ya

    The US Federal Trade Commission on Thursday said it intends to take action against educational technology companies that unlawfully collect data from children using online educational services.

    In a policy statement, the agency said, "Children should not have to needlessly hand over their data and forfeit their privacy in order to do their schoolwork or participate in remote learning, especially given the wide and increasing adoption of ed tech tools."

    The agency says it will scrutinize educational service providers to ensure that they are meeting their legal obligations under COPPA, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

    Continue reading
  • Mysterious firm seeks to buy majority stake in Arm China
    Chinese joint venture's ousted CEO tries to hang on - who will get control?

    The saga surrounding Arm's joint venture in China just took another intriguing turn: a mysterious firm named Lotcap Group claims it has signed a letter of intent to buy a 51 percent stake in Arm China from existing investors in the country.

    In a Chinese-language press release posted Wednesday, Lotcap said it has formed a subsidiary, Lotcap Fund, to buy a majority stake in the joint venture. However, reporting by one newspaper suggested that the investment firm still needs the approval of one significant investor to gain 51 percent control of Arm China.

    The development comes a couple of weeks after Arm China said that its former CEO, Allen Wu, was refusing once again to step down from his position, despite the company's board voting in late April to replace Wu with two co-chief executives. SoftBank Group, which owns 49 percent of the Chinese venture, has been trying to unentangle Arm China from Wu as the Japanese tech investment giant plans for an initial public offering of the British parent company.

    Continue reading
  • SmartNICs power the cloud, are enterprise datacenters next?
    High pricing, lack of software make smartNICs a tough sell, despite offload potential

    SmartNICs have the potential to accelerate enterprise workloads, but don't expect to see them bring hyperscale-class efficiency to most datacenters anytime soon, ZK Research's Zeus Kerravala told The Register.

    SmartNICs are widely deployed in cloud and hyperscale datacenters as a means to offload input/output (I/O) intensive network, security, and storage operations from the CPU, freeing it up to run revenue generating tenant workloads. Some more advanced chips even offload the hypervisor to further separate the infrastructure management layer from the rest of the server.

    Despite relative success in the cloud and a flurry of innovation from the still-limited vendor SmartNIC ecosystem, including Mellanox (Nvidia), Intel, Marvell, and Xilinx (AMD), Kerravala argues that the use cases for enterprise datacenters are unlikely to resemble those of the major hyperscalers, at least in the near term.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022