NASA’s Parker solar probe started its journey by setting a record — the fastest rocket launch in history. It’s gone on to set several other records as it studied the sun in unprecedented detail. NASA now reports that Parker has broken two of its own records during its latest trip past the sun. Setting records is all well and good, but NASA also says the probe is working splendidly and collecting valuable data.
Studying the sun up close is a complicated endeavor. As you’d expect, the surface of the sun is extremely hot, but the corona around it is 300 times hotter at more than 1 million Kelvin. Spacecraft can’t linger in the corona too long, so Parker travels on long elliptical orbits that pass through the corona every few weeks. NASA designed a new type of heat shield to keep the probe safe during these transits through the super-heated plasma. It has a 4.5-inch layer of carbon composite foam between two sheets of carbon fiber. NASA noted the heat shield performed above expectations after Parker’s first trip through the corona.
Parker completed its fourth close pass of the sun late last week (known as perihelion), and NASA got the all-clear from the probe over the weekend. The spacecraft reported “Status A,” which is the best of four possible status conditions. That means all the probe’s systems are in working order and it succeeded in collecting the requested science data.
During that trip through the corona, Parker reached a speed of 244,255 miles per hour (about 393,044 kph). That breaks the previous record of 153,454 miles per hour (247,000 kph), which was also held by Parker following its November 2018 transit. Parker also smashed its previous record for the closest manmade object to the sun at a distance of just 11.6 million miles (18.6 million kilometers). Previously, it set the record at 26.55 million miles (42.7 million kilometers).
We can expect the Parker Solar Probe to continue setting records through 2024. With each pass, Parker will increase its speed and move closer to the surface of the sun. By the end of the mission, NASA expects Parker to reach 430,000 miles per hour (690,000 kph), which is 0.064 percent the speed of light. At that point, it will pass within just 3.8 million miles (6.2 million kilometers) of the sun. Parker has already revealed tantalizing details of the solar winds and magnetic fields. No one knows what it might discover in the coming years.
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