Parker Solar Probe Swings By Venus On Its Way To The Sun

NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

The world’s first mission to “touch” the sun is advancing smoothly. After reaching its first flight milestones a week into its journey, as the Inquisitr reported at the time, the Parker Solar Probe has just crossed off another important item on its agenda.

On October 3, the pioneering spacecraft performed its first planned flyby of Venus, coming within 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) of our planetary neighbor, NASA announced.

The Venus flyby was executed right on schedule and served as a gravity assist maneuver to help the probe adjust its course toward the sun. Throughout its seven-year mission, the Parker Solar Probe will double back to Venus another six times to perform a total of seven flybys, the Inquisitr previously reported.

These gravity assists are designed to allow the spacecraft to gradually shrink its orbit around the sun and ultimately approach its incandescent orb at a distance of 3.83 million miles (6.16 million kilometers) of its surface.

That will bring the Parker Solar Probe “well within the orbit of Mercury and about seven times closer than any spacecraft has come before,” NASA explained. The closest any man-made vehicle has ever come to the sun was 27 million miles (43 million kilometers), a record set in 1976 by the German-American Helios 2 mission.

“We’re getting closer to ‘touching’ the sun! This morning, our #ParkerSolarProbe spacecraft successfully completed its first flyby of Venus at a distance of about 1,500 miles,” the space agency tweeted on Wednesday.

According to NASA, the Parker Solar Probe reached its closest point to Venus at about 4:45 a.m. EDT and used the planet’s gravity to sculpt its trajectory toward the sun.

“As the orbits of the spacecraft and Venus converged toward the same point, Parker Solar Probe slipped in front of the planet, allowing Venus’ gravity — relatively small by celestial standards — to twist its path and change its speed,” space agency officials said in a statement.

This helped the spacecraft reduce its cruising velocity relative to the sun by 10 percent, or about 7,000 miles per hour, and correct its perihelion (closest orbital point to the sun), drawing it nearer to the star by 4 million miles.

The mission design for NASA's Parker Solar Probe.
The mission design for NASA's Parker Solar Probe.Featured image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

As it was swinging by Venus, the spacecraft’s instruments picked up a wealth of data that is yet to be analyzed and which will help the mission’s team prepare flight operations for the upcoming flybys.

Interestingly enough, the original mission concept didn’t include any Venus flybys at all, notes the space agency. Instead, the team had envisioned using Jupiter for gravity assist, as the gas giant has a much stronger gravitational pull compared to Venus.

This would have allowed the Parker Solar Probe to perform just one gravity assist flyby instead of seven and would have brought the spacecraft three times closer to the sun.

The planned orbits of NASA's Parker Solar Probe.
The original mission concept used only a single Jupiter flyby for gravity assist, but involved only two close approaches to the sun and less than 100 hours spent studying it.Featured image credit: Mary Pat Hrybyk-KeithNASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Nevertheless, the current mission plan has another major advantage: it enables the probe to spend nine times as many hours in close proximity to the sun, studying its features and surroundings.

Next up for the intrepid space probe is its first close encounter with the sun, scheduled to occur between October 31 and November 11, shows NASA.

The 12-day interval will be full of excitement for the Parker Solar Probe, reports Space, as the spacecraft can finally begin gathering valuable data about the sun’s structure, composition, and activity.

Launched on August 12, the Parker Solar Probe is described by NASA as “the coolest, hottest, fastest mission under the sun.” The spacecraft is scheduled to perform 24 flybys of our biggest star with the goal of studying the solar wind and the fiery atmosphere of the sun, known as the solar corona.

During its final solar flyby, slated to occur in 2025, the probe will make history by becoming the first spacecraft to “touch” the sun as it flies though the solar corona.