Traveling at the record-breaking speed of 213,200 miles per hour, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe came within 15 million miles of the Sun’s surface, completing its first solar encounter phase and rewarding scientists with the first picture ever taken from within our star’s atmosphere.
Launched on August 12, 2018 in a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the probe will help provide answers to some of the mysteries of our Sun. In particular: Why is the atmosphere hotter than the surface? Why is the solar wind continuously accelerated? These are important questions considering the Sun is both essential for life and a potential danger through its magnetized materials’ interference with our satellites, electronics, and astronauts in orbit. Scientists on the craft’s team presented the initial set of new data from its encounter on December 12th during the 2018 American Geophysical Union meeting.
The Parker Probe’s team began downloading data from its journey on December 7th this year, but the actual Sun passage took place about a month earlier, from October 31st through November 11th. The delay was caused by the nature of the Sun itself – as a wide band radio source, communications are not possible anytime a craft is in front, behind, or to the side of it.
During the probe’s approaches, scientists rely on one of four beacons installed that signal the craft’s status. Mission controllers at the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Labs (JHUAPL) received the “A” beacon at 4:46 pm EST on November 7, 2018, indicating that the probe was operating well and collecting data. Also, more data from the probe’s initial encounter will be forthcoming next year following its next approach.
This latest visitor to the Sun was named after physicist Eugene Newman Parker, best known for his mid-1950s theories about solar wind and the Sun’s atmosphere being hotter than the surface itself, and the craft will likely be one more data point complimenting his predictions. Since the Parker Probe’s mission will encounter our star in ways never done before, its science team is not quite sure of what to expect.
“Parker is an exploration mission — the potential for new discoveries is huge,” Nour Raouafi, a Parker Solar Probe project scientist at the JHUAPL in Laurel, Maryland, was quoted on the issue. The craft will also pass by Venus a total of seven times and will come within 3.8 million miles of the Sun at its closest of 24 planned approaches.
The Parker Solar Probe prior and during launch on August 12, 2018 in a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. | Credit: Tom Cross/Teslarati
Figuring out what the actual underlying physics of the Sun are is a challenge for scientists studying its activity. When observing the surface changes, the variations seen are difficult to classify as being caused by either the star’s activity or its rotation due to how fast it moves. The speed of the Parker Probe will allow it to nearly match the Sun’s rotational speed, one revolution per 27 days as viewed from Earth, meaning it will hover over one area for a short amount of time.
While there, it will be able to specifically collect data about activity caused by the Sun itself, thereby enabling scientists to revise their models accordingly. To collect data surrounding these questions, the probe was given a thermal heat shield that can withstand the 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures it will be exposed to while maintaining a mid-80s F temperature for its instruments.
In addition to the Parker Probe’s historic photo and data, NASA has been on a roll with milestones and discoveries this year. Launched in 1977, the Voyager 2 spacecraft became the second human-made object to enter interstellar space as it left our solar system on November 5th. The first was Voyager 1 when it left on August 25, 2012. NASA also landed its InSight craft on the surface of Mars on November 26, 2018, and several photos have been returned from it since, including a lander “selfie“. That mission had a second milestone with it via two CubeSats named Mars Cube One (MarCO), successfully demonstrating the use of tiny satellites in deep space. The satellites were able to relay InSight’s landing event data to its team much quicker than would be been possible with other orbiting satellites, and they even sent back a picture of the red planet as they passed by and continued into their long orbit around the Sun.
Watch the below video for more on the Parker Solar Probe’s mission: