NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has set records for several years. On November 21, Parker set another record by completing his 10th close approach to the sun. On this close approach, the spacecraft came within 5.3 million miles from the surface of the sun.
Although it is a great distance, the heat produced by the sun is extremely intense. The perihelion took place at. 4:25 AM EST on November 21, at which time the probe was traveling at 364,660 miles per hour. At such an incredible speed, NASA says the probe would travel from Earth to the moon in less than an hour.
The close approach also marked the midpoint of Parker’s 10th solar eclipse, which began on November 16 and ended on November 26. Despite the hostile environment close to the sun, the spacecraft is in good health and all systems continue to function normally. While Parker is close to the sun, it is unable to send the collected data home. It will send all the data collected about its close encounter with the sun back from December 23rd to January 9th.
The data it returns will provide information about the solar wind and the dust environment near the sun. Earlier this month, NASA shared some information about data Parker had collected about high-speed dust impacts. As small as a speck of dust is, it moves at such incredible speeds that it can still cause significant damage to the probe. As NASA collected data on dust impacts, Parker traveled through an area known as the zodiac cloud. This cloud is made of small dust grains that fall from comets and asteroids as they pass through the solar system.
These small dust grains measure between two micrometers and 20 micrometers in diameter, less than half the width of a human hair. While the dust grains are extremely small, shocks can do significant damage when the probe moves at over 360,000 mph in the dust grains that move at over 6700 mph. When dust hits the surface of the spacecraft, it heats the surface of the spacecraft enough to evaporate material, which is then ionized. Rapid ionization and evaporation create plasma, and shocks with larger dust grains generate a cloud of dirt. NASA cannot prevent the impacts with the spacecraft, but the impacts allowed scientists to study plasma explosions and how they interact with the solar wind.
While the probe is designed to study the sun, it has also taken pictures of other planets and collected data about them during its mission. In April this year, the probe took pictures of the dust rings around Venus. The images gave the researchers a complete picture of the dust rings, which had only been suggested by a probe launched in the 70s, called Helios. Parker also took a very cool black-and-white photo of Venus in February this year.
In February 2020, NASA celebrated Parker’s fourth successful close encounter with the sun. At the time, mission planners said the heat shield was 300 degrees warmer than previous passages past the sun. Behind the heat shield, however, the spacecraft and instruments were only about 85 degrees Fahrenheit. At the time, mission planners said a passage past the sun in 2024 or 2025 would see even higher temperatures.
The second dense bypass of the sun took place in April 2019. During this passage, the probe came within 15 million miles of the sun. That’s a much longer distance than the 5.3 million miles Parker was from the star’s surface this month. Parker survived its very first approach to the sun in November 2018. It became the only object made by humans to come within 15 million miles of the sun, taking over a record set in 1976 by Helios B. The first close approach occurred on November 5th. , 2018. That approach caused the probe to come within 26.55 million miles of the sun.
With each near approach, the spacecraft moves closer and closer to the surface of the sun, allowing it to collect new data. The spacecraft also increases its speed for each passage and remains in excellent condition, where all instruments work perfectly. Parker was launched on August 12, 2018. The probe will in the future get closer to the sun’s surface. NASA says it will be within 3.8 million miles of the surface of its last three orbits around our star.
During its closest approach to the star, the probe will move at 430,000 mph. At that speed, it would travel from Philadelphia to Washington DC in a second. Data collected by the probe are essential to help scientists understand the solar wind, which can affect our planet’s magnetic field and supply energy to the radiation belts around the Earth. Solar winds contribute to space weather, which can be harmful to satellites and astronauts in orbit. NASA also uses the data it learns about the sun to learn more about distant stars that are impossible to study directly. The mission was named after astrophysicist Eugene Parker.