Today is a big day for the intrepid Parker Solar Probe. Famously known as NASA's first mission to "touch" the sun, the car-sized spacecraft is about to take a valiant plunge into the toasty solar atmosphere – called the solar corona – for the second time since it first took to the skies in August of 2018.
Racing through space at formidable speeds, the Parker Solar Probe will take a dive through the sun's corona later today, hitting another major milestone for the NASA mission. The probe is expected to penetrate the fiery solar atmosphere momentarily, making its closest approach to the sun – also known as perihelion – at 6:40 p.m. ET, the Daily Mail is reporting.
During its close flyby of the sun, the resilient spacecraft will be hurtling through space at an incredible speed of up to 213,200 mph. That's fast enough to fly between New York and London 39 times in one hour, notes Astronomy Now.
As previously covered by The Inquisitr, the NASA spacecraft reached its first perihelion on November 5, 2018. Over the course of its seven-year mission to the sun, the Parker Solar Probe is scheduled to perform a total of 24 perihelia on its quest to study and gather data on the solar corona.
"The goal of the mission is to help researchers understand what causes the temperature between the sun's visible surface and its outer atmosphere to jump to more than a million degrees," details Astronomy Now.
After surviving its first close encounter with the sun, the probe is getting ready for a second tumultuous journey through the star's incandescent atmosphere. According to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, the Parker Solar Probe has been gearing up for this moment ever since March 30, when its current solar encounter phase originally began.
Just like in the case of its first perihelion, today's close brush with the sun will also bring the spacecraft within 15 million miles of the solar surface. By doing so, the Parker Solar Probe will be matching its own record for closest-ever approach to the sun – moving closer and closer throughout the mission until it finally reaches its last planned orbit of just 3.8 million miles from the star's visible surface in 2024.
The spacecraft's second solar encounter phase will last for another week, completing on April 10. During that time, the spacecraft will fire up all of its four suites of science instruments to collect and store science data from its second historic encounter with the sun.
"As designed, the Parker Solar Probe will be out of contact with Earth for several days during the solar encounter," explains the JPL.
"This allows the spacecraft to prioritize keeping its heat shield, called the Thermal Protection System, oriented towards the sun, rather than pointing its transmitter towards Earth."As such, the mission's team expects that the science data from today's close encounter with the sun will only be down-linked to Earth in several weeks' time.
The next close flyby of the sun will occur later this year, as the Parker Solar Probe is scheduled to reach its third perihelion on September 1. A few months later, the probe will perform its second gravity-assist flyby of Venus on December 26.
"That will put the spacecraft on course for a fourth, even closer flyby on 29 January 2020 at an even higher velocity," Astronomy Now points out.