It will allow to create eclipses of up to 6 hours using 2 synchronized spacecrafts

Proba-3, the program led by Spain and Belgium to generate artificial eclipses

The big astronomical news this week has been the solar eclipse that could be seen in some parts of the world this Monday, April 8.

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What millions of people were able to see yesterday was a natural solar eclipse, but space agencies have been looking for decades to find ways to generate artificial solar eclipse, in order to better study the solar corona, which is of great importance for our planet, since that is where coronal mass ejections are generated (also called solar storms) which can affect the Earth's magnetosphere, causing damage to electrical systems.

Artistic recreation of a solar eclipse (Image: ESA).

As recalls the European Space Agency (ESA), the first An attempt in this sense took place in the Apollo-Soyuz mission of 1975, the first meeting in space between US astronauts and cosmonauts from the Soviet Union. In that case, the US Apollo module He played the role of occulter of the solar sphere, in order to take photos of the solar corona from the Soyuz spacecraft.

The artificial solar eclipse generated by the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission (Photo: NASA).

In September 2024, the launch of the ESA Proba-3 mission is scheduled, consisting of two spacecraft: the Occulter and the Coronagraph. The mission was presented this week in Belgium and will allow the generation of artificial eclipses, in order to provide scientists with better opportunities to study the solar corona than those that occur from time to time with the ephemeral natural solar eclipses. ESA thus explains the function of each of these spacecraft :

The Proba-3 Occulter spacecraft will fly about 150 m away from the second Coronagraph (Coronograph) spacecraft, presented to the media at the Redwire Space facility in Kruibeke, Belgium, this week, where they are undergoing pre-flight testing. The couple will align with the Sun so precisely that the occultator casts a shadow on the face of the coronagraph, obscuring the Sun so that the corona is visible.

ESA notes that "the goal with Proba-3 is to routinely produce these artificial eclipses through precise flight training, up to six hours at a time per 19-hour orbit. hours and 36 minutes."

An infrared view of a laser-based test carried out by ESA, MDA and Liège Space Center personnel at Redwire Space in Kruibeke, Belgium, for the Proba-3 programme. (Photo: ESA - M. Pédoussaut/J. Versluys).

Dietmar Pilz, Director of Technology, Engineering and Quality at ESA, points out: "The two spacecraft will act as if they were one huge 150 m long instrument". Obviously, achieving this in space requires great precision: "achieving it will be an extreme technical challenge, because if there is even the slightest mismatch, it won't work", Pilz adds, who recognizes that the development process "has been equally long, carried out by a consortium of smaller ESA Member States led by Spain and Belgium, so I am very pleased to see here today at Proba-3, preparing for launch."

Artistic recreation of the two ships of the Proba-3 program: Coronagraph (on the left) and Occulter (Image: ESA-P.Carril).

This leadership of Spain and Belgium in this ESA space program is in the hands of two companies: Airbus DS Space Systems and SENER, from Spain, and Redwire Space, from Belgium. SENER is the main contractor for this program, Airbus is in charge of designing and building the ships, and Redwire will be in charge of avionics and operations.

An artistic recreation showing the operation of the two spacecraft of the Proba-3 program: Occulter (on the left) will generate a shadow so that the Coronagraph spacecraft can better capture the solar corona (Image: ESA-P.Carril).

José Julián Echevarría, general director of Aerospace and Defense of Sener, has noted: "Proba-3 is a particularly ambitious mission, with great potential to benefit aerospace engineering and astronomy. But it is also a great example of industrial collaboration, and we are proud to be part of it. This milestone is the result of over 25 years of work in guidance, navigation, and control systems."

You can see here a video published yesterday by ESA in which the Proba-3 program is explained:

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