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After 17 years, a spacecraft embarks on its inaugural return, marking a historic homecoming

By: April Carson



A space probe that provided humanity's initial multi-faceted glimpse of the Sun is poised to make its inaugural return to Earth's vicinity, seventeen years after its original launch. The Voyager 1 spacecraft, which was launched in 1977, is preparing to become the first human-built object to cross the threshold of our solar system and enter interstellar space.


In addition to its achievements at the Sun, Voyager 1 has also made significant discoveries about Jupiter's moon Io and Saturn's largest moon Titan.


NASA's STEREO-A spacecraft is scheduled to traverse the space between the Sun and Earth on Saturday, August 12th, marking a noteworthy occasion as the agency celebrates the "homecoming" of its adolescent space probe.


The paired STEREO (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory) spacecraft were sent into space on October 25th, 2006, departing from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station located in Florida.


Scientists from around the world have been monitoring their progress ever since. STEREO-A and STEREO-B will be the first spacecraft to travel more than four astronomical units (AU) away from Earth, marking a new milestone in space exploration.


Before the mission, our ability to study the Sun was limited to observing only one side at any given time. The journeys of the two spacecraft allowed us to attain a three-dimensional, stereoscopic view.


The STEREO mission has provided us with a unique opportunity to study our Sun, and the data collected over the past several years has been invaluable in advancing our understanding of coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and other such phenomena.


While STEREO-B (nicknamed "Behind") followed in the wake, STEREO-A (dubbed "Ahead") forged ahead, both tracing orbits around the Sun similar to that of Earth.


In the initial years following its launch, the dual-spacecraft mission successfully attained its significant objective: delivering the foremost stereoscopic, or multi-perspective, portrayal of our nearest star.


"On February 6, 2011, another pivotal achievement was realized by the mission: STEREO-A and -B achieved a separation of 180 degrees in their orbits. This event unveiled the Sun to humanity in its entirety for the first time, appearing as a complete sphere," noted NASA.


The mission has since been instrumental in creating a better understanding of the Sun, its magnetic fields and energetic particles, coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and other such phenomena. It has allowed scientists to observe how these events propagate through interplanetary space and affect objects beyond Earth's orbit.


"Before this breakthrough, we were essentially 'anchored' to the Sun-Earth axis, limiting our view to only one side of the Sun at any given moment," elucidated Lika Guhathakurta, NASA's STEREO program scientist. "STEREO shattered this constraint, granting us a perspective of the Sun as a three-dimensional entity."


This upcoming Saturday, STEREO-A will have completed a full orbit ahead of Earth, effectively "lapping" us in our journey around the Sun.


NASA clarifies that when a burst of solar material referred to as a coronal mass ejection (CME) reaches Earth, it has the potential to disrupt satellite communications, interfere with radio signals, or even trigger fluctuations in our power grids. Conversely, its impact could be minimal. This outcome hinges on the magnetic field encompassed within the CME, which can undergo substantial alterations during its voyage of 93 million miles from the Sun to Earth.


Throughout the months preceding and following STEREO-A's passage near Earth, any CMEs directed towards our planet will traverse over STEREO-A and other proximate spacecraft, furnishing scientists with crucial multi-location measurements obtained from within a CME. By utilizing these measurements, researchers will be able to more accurately predict the magnitude of a CME's impact on Earth.


Toni Galvin, a University of New Hampshire professor and the lead investigator for a STEREO-A instrument, draws a parallel between our data collection about CMEs and the well-known tale of the blind men and the elephant.


"Imagine one person feeling the legs saying 'it's akin to a tree trunk,' while another, sensing the tail, claims 'it's akin to a snake,'" explains Galvin. "This analogy resonates with our current situation concerning CMEs, as we usually have just one or two spacecraft in close proximity, measuring the phenomena."


By using STEREO-A, researchers have been able to gather a more comprehensive understanding of CMEs through multiple measurements. This data is used to create 3D models that can accurately predict the potential impact of CMEs on Earth. Without STEREO-A, researchers would be forced to rely on limited single point measurements and the Tale of the Blind Men's Elephant analogy could remain in play.


Galvin concludes, "By mapping the CMEs in three dimensions we can start to understand them better, with a more thorough data set. With this new insight, they are no longer the proverbial 'black box' and we can begin to model what the impacts will be on Earth."











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April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com


To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav


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