Amazing Universe

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe Smashes Records as it Completes its First Close Pass by the Sun

“We’re going to go closer to the sun than any other spacecraft has gone before. We’re not going to do that once, we’re not gonna do it twice — we’re gonna do that 24 times, and that is terrifying.”

The Parker Solar Probe is a NASA spacecraft currently traveling to probe the outer corona of our Sun. the PSP will approach within 6.9 million kilometers or 4.3 million miles from the center of the Sun and will travel, at closest approach, as fast as 690,000 km/h.

Now, the spacecraft en route to touch the sun was a mere 42.7 million kilometers away as it reached its closest point of orbit relative to our sun, called the perihelion, on Monday, November 5, 2018, traveling at 343,053 kilometers per hour.

“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...”
“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. Image Credit: NASA

And this is just one of the many records the spacecraft will break in the coming months.

En Route to touch the sun

NASA’s Nicola Fox says scientists “can’t wait to get the data.” And scientists hope that the data the spacecraft will gather could unlock some of the sun’s mysteries.

“We’re going to go closer to the sun than any other spacecraft has gone before. We’re not going to do that once, we’re not gonna do it twice — we’re gonna do that 24 times, and that is terrifying.”

The space probe passed within 42.7 million kilometers of the sun’s surface, a feat comparable to the previous record set by another spacecraft, the Helios 2 in 1976, at less than 27 million miles away.

The spacecraft’s mission will continue for several years.

In the next seven years, the PSP will take advantage of Venus’ gravity and slingshot itself closer and closer in a series of loops.

By the end of its mission, in 2025, the spacecraft is expected to dip to 3.8 million miles away from the sun’s surface.

As it approaches hazardous temperatures, the spacecraft will provide experts with unprecedented data about the sun’s magnetic fields, plasma, and energetic particles.

As the spacecraft approaches the sun, it is well protected from the heat.

The space probe is fitted with a 160-pound heat shield called the Thermal Protection System, and two panels of superheated carbon-carbon composite sandwiching a lightweight 4.5-inch-thick carbon foam core.

Parker Solar Probe’s heat shield is made of two panels of superheated carbon-carbon composite sandwiching a lightweight 4.5-inch-thick carbon foam core. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman
Parker Solar Probe’s heat shield is made of two panels of superheated carbon-carbon composite sandwiching a lightweight 4.5-inch-thick carbon foam core. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

As explained by NASA, “The eight-foot-diameter heat shield will safeguard everything within its umbra, the shadow it casts on the spacecraft. At Parker Solar Probe’s closest approach to the Sun, temperatures on the heat shield will reach nearly 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, but the spacecraft and its instruments will be kept at a relatively comfortable temperature of about 85 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Communicating with Earth

But despite the fact the space probe has a state-of-the-art heat protection shield, the temperatures will force mission specialists to limit communicating with the probe.

“We will be mostly out of contact with the spacecraft through the encounter, so the only thing we will have is those beacon tones,” explained Sanae Kubota, the fault management lead.

 

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