NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is performing as advertised as it passed within 15 million miles of the Sun yesterday evening. At 6:40 p.m. EDT, the spacecraft hit perihelion (the closest point to the Sun). The team back at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland used the Deep Space Network to monitor the spacecraft during a four window around closest approach.
Parker Solar Probe responded by sending back beacon status “A” during the entire approach according to NASA. That tells the team the spacecraft is doing great and collecting data.
Mission Operations Manager Nickalaus Pinkine touched on the close approach and what comes next. “The spacecraft is performing as designed, and it was great to be able to track it during this entire perihelion.” Pinkine added, “We’re looking forward to getting the science data down from this encounter in the coming weeks so the science teams can continue to explore the mysteries of the corona and the Sun.”
The spacecraft was traveling at a blistering 213,200 miles per hour. But that’s nothing compared to how fast it’ll be going during its final orbits. During closest approach, the probe will be traveling at 430,000 miles per hour. It could get from Earth to the Moon in just 30 minutes at that speed.
While this orbit’s close approach is done, the Parker Solar Probe is still in the area NASA dubs the solar encounter phase. This is a rough area defined as the spacecraft being within 0.25 AU or 23,250,000 miles.
NASA’s solar probe will make one more similar close approach before it starts to make some meaningful progress towards closing the gap towards the Sun. You can see how the spacecraft will get much closer during the 4th-8th closest approach in the graph below.
The absolute closest approach won’t come until the final three orbits when the Parker Solar Probe cruises within 3.8 million miles to the Sun.
It’ll be the first time a spacecraft has ever flown into the Sun’s atmosphere, known as the corona. A suite of instruments and cameras could revolutionize what we know about our star. From expanding our understanding of the solar wind to helping satellites closer to Earth forecast changes in space weather.
The Parker Solar Probe will also play a role in sending astronauts back to the Moon and beyond. NASA puts it best:
“As we send spacecraft and astronauts further and further from home, we must understand this space environment just as early seafarers needed to understand the ocean.”