Parker Solar Probe becomes closest spacecraft to Sun
Just over 11 weeks after its launch atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has already beaten the record for the closest spacecraft to the Sun — and it’s only going to get closer.
According to NASA, the Parker Solar Probe passed the record of 26.55 million miles (42.73 million kilometers), set by the Helios 2 spacecraft in April 1976, at about 1:04 p.m. EDT (17:04 GMT) on Oct. 29, 2018.
“It’s been just 78 days since Parker Solar Probe launched, and we’ve now come closer to our star than any other spacecraft in history,” Project Manager Andy Driesman, from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, said in a NASA news release. “It’s a proud moment for the team, though we remain focused on our first solar encounter, which begins on Oct. 31.”
As the Parker Solar Probe continues to fly in its solar orbit, it will periodically swing by Venus to use the planet’s gravity to gradually get closer to the Sun with a final close approach distance estimated to be about 3.83 million miles (6.24 million kilometers) by 2024, NASA said. For comparison, Mercury — the closest planet to the Sun — orbits at an average distance of about 35.98 million miles (57.90 million kilometers).
The spacecraft’s first Venus flyby occurred Oct. 3, 2018. It’s next won’t be until Dec. 26, 2019. In total, the Parker Solar Probe is expected fly by the planet seven times through 2024.
In addition to setting new proximity records, the Parker Solar Probe is breaking speed records too. At 10:54 p.m. EDT Oct. 29 (2:54 GMT Oct. 30), the spacecraft beat Helios 2’s April 1976 speed record of 153,454 mph (246,960 kph) relative to the Sun. By the time the mission is at its closest in 2024, it will be flying by the Sun at about 430,000 mph (690,000 kph).
The next major milestone for the probe will be its first perihelion, or closest point in its orbit around the Sun. That is expected to occur at about 10:28 p.m. EST Nov. 5 (3:28 GMT Nov. 6), 2018.
Launched Aug. 12, 2018, the Parker Solar Probe is designed to be the first spacecraft to fly into the Sun’s corona. According to NASA, the mission has three main science objectives: trace the flow of energy that heats and accelerates the corona and solar wind, determine the structure and dynamics of the plasma and magnetic fields at the sources of the solar wind, and explore mechanisms that accelerate and transport energetic particles.
Video courtesy of NASA
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.