Parker Solar Probe Has First Close Encounter With The Sun

NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has hit yet another milestone in its pioneering mission to “touch” the sun.

After shattering two world records last week — for fastest speed and closest approach to the sun — the dauntless spacecraft has finally reached its first perihelion, making a spectacular close pass by the sun, reports Space.

According to NASA, the historic maneuver was conducted on the night of November 5, at 10:28 p.m. EST, and brought the solar probe within 15 million miles of the sun’s surface.

“Facing brutal heat and radiation, our Parker Solar Probe spacecraft achieved its first close approach to the sun,” the space agency tweeted on Monday.

During this first close encounter with our star, the spacecraft reached a top speed of 213,200 miles per hour relative to the sun — thereby breaking its own record, set on October 29. At the time, the Parker Solar Probe was darting toward the sun at 153,454 miles per hour and had just slipped within 26.55 million miles from the star’s surface, as reported by the Inquisitr.

Monday’s close encounter with the sun is the first in a series of 24 tight orbits around our star. The mission’s final perihelion is scheduled for 2025 and will carry the Parker Solar Probe a mere 3.8 million miles of the sun’s surface, as the spacecraft travels at formidable speeds of up to 430,000 miles per hour.

This latest milestone comes less than three months after the Parker Solar Probe launched on its seven-year journey to the sun. As Space points out, the spacecraft was flying solo all throughout the maneuver. The probe dropped out of contact with mission control due to the enormous amounts of radio waves produced by the sun, which drown out the spacecraft’s signals.

“For several days around the November 5 perihelion, Parker Solar Probe will be completely out of contact with Earth because of interference from the Sun’s overwhelming radio emissions,” NASA explained in a mission update.

Although the spacecraft was unable to communicate with Earth, it had no trouble operating its cutting-edge thermal shield on its own, continuously tilting itself to make sure that all of its instruments remain in the heat shield’s shadow. This allowed the probe to brave the scorching temperatures of the solar material it was flying through — which can reach up to 3.6 million degrees Fahrenheit, notes the space agency.

“Parker Solar Probe employs a host of autonomous systems to keep the spacecraft safe without guidance from Earth,” stated NASA officials. “This autonomy is key not only during no-contact phases around the 24 planned perihelia but also throughout the mission when the round-trip light time — the time it takes for radio signals to go back and forth between Earth and Parker Solar Probe — can be up to 31 minutes.”

Since the Parker Solar Probe remained incommunicado throughout the perihelion, the spacecraft had to take independent measurements of its first close approach to the sun. The mission’s team is expecting to receive the first batch of data from Monday’s close encounter with the sun in early December.

Once the solar probe slides back into communication range with Earth, it will get in touch with mission control at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. The spacecraft is programmed to signal its status via a repertoire of four “beacon tones” and will send a beep to let us know how it’s doing.

The next two close encounters with the sun are scheduled for 2019 and will take place in April and September. In December 2019, the Parker Solar Probe will perform its second Venus flyby to adjust its course via a gravity assist maneuver and steer its trajectory a little bit closer to the sun.