In August, the Parker Solar Probe rocketed away from Earth aboard a Delta IV Heavy booster. The relatively small 685 kg spacecraft had to reach a high speed to establish an orbit around the sun – rather than being pulled into the star’s enormous gravitational pull never to escape.
According to NASA, the spacecraft is well on its way. The space agency reports that the probe now holds the record for the closest approach to the Sun by a man-made object, setting the current record 42.7 million kilometers from the surface of the Earth at approximately 1:04 PM on Oct. 29, 2018. sun passed (17:04 UTC). The previous record was set in April 1976 by the German-American spacecraft Helios 2.
“It’s only been 78 days since the launch of the Parker Solar Probe and we are now closer to our star than any other spacecraft in history,” project manager Andy Driesman of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, said in a statement. press release. “It’s a proud moment for the team, although we remain focused on our first solar encounter, which starts on October 31.”
Studying the solar wind
Later today, the solar probe should also break Helios 2’s record for solar speed of 246,960 km/h. The probe is still getting closer to the sun and should make its first relatively close encounter with the star on November 5. At its closest approach in 2024, the probe will come within 6.2 million kilometers of the Sun’s surface.
The primary purpose of the Parker Solar Probe is to study the solar wind. It is named after Eugene Parker, who first theorized about six decades ago that a stream of particles was flowing away from the sun. Over time, astronomers accepted this idea, and then they began to study this moving plasma of electrons and its effects on the solar system, from the loss of Mars’ atmosphere to space weather on Earth and the protection of Earth’s orbit. rotating satellites.
But to really understand solar wind, scientists need to get closer to the sun, and since the late 1970s, they’ve been thinking about such a mission as the Parker Solar Probe. The probe is now aligning itself in an elliptical orbit that will allow for studies of the solar wind near its source. The spacecraft should complete the last of its two dozen close to the sun in 2025.