Stevenage-built spacecraft in risky Earth flyby

Airbus Stevenage's Solar Orbiter spacecraft in Earth flyby

Solar Orbiter, which was designed and built at Airbus in Stevenage, performed a flyby of Earth on Saturday - Credit: European Space Agency

Solar Orbiter - a space lab designed and built at Airbus in Stevenage to explore the Sun - performed a risky flyby of Earth on Saturday.

The European Space Agency says it's the riskiest flyby yet for a science mission, with Solar Orbiter passing through clouds of space debris.

It was at its closest to Earth at 4.30am, just 460km above North Africa and the Canary Islands.

The manoeuvre was essential to decrease the spacecraft's energy and line it up for its next close pass of the Sun.

Solar Orbiter launched in February last year and made its first pass of the Sun in June 2020, closing to 77 million kilometres. In March, it will pass within 50m km.

Scientist Daniel Müller said: “Compared to the images we've already gotten, everything now will be zoomed in by about a factor of two."

The mission will look at how the Sun creates and controls the bubble of plasma surrounding the Solar System, and influences the planets within it.