New space mission aims to create solar eclipses on-demand with satellites

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Days before a total solar eclipse sweeps across North America, scientists in Europe have revealed another plan to block out the sun.

The audacious project — called Proba-3 — will align two spacecraft to produce artificial eclipses. By creating this complicated calibration, the mission will capture new views of the Sun — and complete the first-ever precision formation space flight.

At an event today in Belgium, the European Space Agency (ESA) unveiled the Proba-3 satellites: the Occulter and the Coronagraph.

Proba-3’s flightpath

Artist's impression of ESA's Proba-3 mission blocking the Sun between two spacecraft
Artist’s impression of ESA’s Proba-3 mission blocking the Sun. Credit: ESA-P. Carril

Under ESA’s plan, the Occulter will fly around 150m from the Coronograph. Once the pair are in their precise positions, the Occulter will cast a shadow onto the Coronagraph face, which will mask the Sun to reveal the corona.

A similar experiment was conducted back in 1975, when astronauts from the US and Soviet Union teamed up to create an artificial eclipse. But Proba-3 aims to achieve the feat routinely.

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If all goes to plan, the €200mn mission will deliver solar eclipses on demand. As a result, the elusive solar corona will finally be visible for sustained study.

Solar eclipses by request

Proba-3 will first separate into the Occulter (top) and the Coronagraph. Credit: ESA — Magic Fennec

To produce solar eclipses, Proba-3 will rely on precision formation flying, which autonomously coordinates the movements of multiple spacecraft.

Together, the satellites will create a single science instrument that’s 150 metres long.

“It will demonstrate various types of formation flying configurations and it will experiment with in-orbit rendezvous techniques,” Dietmar Pilz, ESA’s Director of Technology, Engineering and Quality, said at a Tuesday press conference. “Once proven, formation flying will be an enabler for future missions”

Proba-3 will use a laser metrology system to achieve millimetre-level precision. Credit: ESA — Magic Fennec

ESA has grand ambitions for the new technology. The agency envisions formations of space telescopes observing cosmic targets at extraordinary resolutions. Proba-3 will also showcase tech for “in-orbit servicing” and “removal of derelict satellites,” Pilz said.

The next step to those goals is final pre-flight testing. Once that’s completed, the countdown to takeoff can commence. The mission is tentatively slated to launch from India in September 2024.

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