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ESA, ISRO to soon launch Proba-3, which will create the world’s first man-made solar eclipse

ESA, ISRO to soon launch Proba-3, which will create the world’s first man-made solar eclipse
Before we knew the astronomical phenomenon that eclipses were, most cultures had their own explanations for them. In a weird twist of fate, however, these stories often ended up as a celestial buffet for some mythical creature or another — leading to these cultures considering the event as a bad omen. For instance, the Sun is eaten by a demon in Hinduism, a dragon in ancient Chinese cultures, and a wolf according to Norse mythology. Now, imagine telling all these anxiety-struck people that we were planning to artificially induce an eclipse.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is set to embark on an unprecedented mission this autumn: the launch of Proba-3, the world's first man-made eclipse machine. This revolutionary project involves two satellites working in tandem to create a prolonged, man-made solar eclipse in space, a feat that has never been achieved before.

Proba-3 is composed of two satellites that will fly in close formation, maintaining a precise distance of 144 metres apart. This alignment will allow one satellite to cast a shadow onto the other, effectively creating an artificial solar eclipse for the other satellite. However, if you were expecting a massive difference on Earth, it is unlikely we'll see the eclipse we're used to.

The reason this mission is so crucial is because the Sun is somewhat of a massive attention-seeker. The star’s brilliant beams are so all-encompassing that they wash out everything in their path, making it hard to discern specific waves of radiation. Imagine how difficult it would be to spot a firefly while a massive forest fire burns behind it.

Proba-3’s primary scientific goal is to study the Sun's corona, the faint outer atmosphere usually obscured by the Sun's intense light. By blocking out the Sun's bright face, Proba-3 will provide a rare and sustained view of the corona. Interestingly enough, the mission will be launched using the PSLV-XL rocket, operated by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

Formation flying requires an extraordinary level of precision, akin to maintaining the configuration of a 'large rigid structure' in space. This is achieved through a sophisticated blend of guidance and navigation technologies. Proba-3 will demonstrate these capabilities by conducting rendezvous experiments and maintaining its formation for up to six hours at a time.

The primary instrument aboard Proba-3 is an external coronagraph, designed to study the Sun's corona closer to the solar rim than ever before. By providing a clear and extended view of this region, scientists hope to gain insights into solar phenomena such as coronal mass ejections and solar winds, which have significant impacts on space weather and, consequently, on Earth's technological infrastructure

According to the ESA, both spacecraft will orbit the Earth every 19.7 hours, at a maximum height of 60,530 kilometres. The coronagraph spacecraft will weigh 340 kg, while the one casting the shadow will weigh 200 kg. The mission antenna will be stationed on the Santa Maria island in Portugal, with a ground station in Redu, Belgium.

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