Here Comes the Sun
Nothing man-made has ever gotten so close to the sun
The Parker Space Probe is preparing for its second trip around the sun.
Last August, the sun-exploring space probe was sent hurtling toward the sun at about 200 times the speed of a bullet, faster than any space probe has gone before to get 35 million kilometers closer to the sun than any previous mission.
It first looped around Venus seven times to use Venus’s gravity to actually slow it down and stop it from hurtling straight into the sun. Scientists managed to get the Parker Probe into a nice orbit around the sun, so it can get super-close for one part of its revolution and then far enough away to cool down enough so it won’t melt. It’ll be within the sun’s atmosphere, which is hotter than the melting point of steel.
On Nov. 5 of last year, the Parker Space Probe survived its first close flyby of the sun, swooping within 24 million kilometers of the sun. On Jan.19, 161 days after its launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, it completed its first trip, reaching its farthest orbital distance from the star, a distance called the “aphelion.”
“We’ve always said that we don’t know what to expect until we look at the data,” said Nour Raouafi, a project scientist on the probe who works at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. “The data we have received hints at many new things that we’ve not seen before and at potential new discoveries. Parker Solar Probe is delivering on the mission’s promise of revealing the mysteries of our sun.”
Among other things, scientists are hoping that data from the probe will help us to learn about the process that creates the solar winds, a stream of charged particles that constantly streams out of the sun’s surface in all directions and answer the question of why the sun’s atmosphere, called the corona, is hotter than its outermost layer.
“The spacecraft has been delivering data from its instruments to Earth via the Deep Space Network, and to date more than 17 gigabits of science data has been downloaded. The full data-set from the first orbit will be downloaded by April,” Geoff Brown of the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab wrote Monday.
The probe is once again traveling toward its target and is expected to reach its next perihelion, the closest point to the Sun along its orbital path, on April 4.
“It’s been an illuminating and fascinating first orbit,” said Parker Solar Probe Project Manager Andy Driesman. “We’ve learned a lot about how the spacecraft operates and reacts to the solar environment, and I’m proud to say the team’s projections have been very accurate.”
In preparation for its second trip, mission controllers are making storage space by deleting files already transmitted to Earth and sending updated positional and navigational info, including an automated command sequence that should keep the probe busy for about a month.
On its second pass, the probe will fly by at a similar distance to the last, but in future orbits, it will break its own records, getting closer and closer to the sun. By its final planned flyby, in late 2025, the spacecraft will dive within just 6.16 million kilometers of the sun, accelerated by the star’s gravity to an unimaginably fast 690,000 km/h.