A spacecraft designed and built in the UK is preparing for the first of many Venus flyers as it heads towards the Sun on a mission to uncover its secrets.
The solar orbit will use the gravitational force of the planet to bring it closer to the Sun, while at the same time tilting its orbit to observe the star from a different perspective.
The closest approach will take place at 12.39pm British time on December 27, when the spacecraft will be about 4,700 miles away from the cloudy peaks of Venus.
However, according to the European Space Agency (ESA), the solar orbiter will not be able to capture any image of Venus as “it must remain facing the sun.”
But it will use some of the built-in instruments to record magnetic, plasma and particles around Venus as it approaches the planet.
Currently, the spacecraft is more than 150 million miles from Earth.
It exploded into space in February this year from the Nasa Cape Canaveral site in Florida.
According to ESA, the path of the Sun’s orbiter around the Sun was chosen to be “in resonance” with Venus.
This means that the spacecraft will constantly approach the planet in every few orbits and use Venus’ gravity to change or tilt its orbit.
The next close approach to Venus is expected in August 2021, and each encounter will increase its orbital propensity.
By 2025, the Sun’s orbit will have enough favor to make the first images of the Sun’s polar regions.
The spacecraft will approach the Sun every five months, and the closest to it will be only 26 million miles, closer to the planet Mercury.
During that time, it will be placed for a few days in approximately the same area of the Sun’s surface, while the Sun revolves around its axis.
This will allow the spacecraft to observe the magnetic activity that builds up in the atmosphere which can lead to powerful flashes and eruptions, providing new insight into the giant storms raging on its surface.
Predicting when these storms will occur could help governments and companies protect these satellites and other communications infrastructure.
Back in July, the Solar Orbiter discovered its first images of the Sun, taken from 47 million miles of the star’s surface.
These were the closest images of the Sun ever taken, revealing “campfires” or mini solar rockets, streaked across its surface.
Scientists in the UK helped design four of the 10 instruments on the Solar Orbiter, while the UK space agency provided £ 20m for a project worth £ 1.3bn.
The design and implementation of the spacecraft was taken over by the airline Airbus from Stevenage.
The mission is expected to last ten years.
Once the Solar Orbiter runs out of fuel and energy, scientists will lose all communication with the spacecraft.
It will then continue to orbit the Sun somewhere between Mercury and Venus like a piece of space debris.