NASA’s record-breaking Parker Solar Probe aces third Sun flyby

Three down, 21 to go


An artist’s depiction of the Parker Solar Probe at work in orbit around the Sun. Image credit: Steve Gribben/NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

NASA’s pioneering Parker Solar Probe just zoomed by the Sun for the third time.

The spacecraft completed its third close solar flyby on 1 September 2019, coming within 24 million kilometres (15 million miles) of our star, NASA officials said. At the moment of closest approach, or perihelion, the probe was traveling more than 343,100 kilometres per hour (213,200 miles per hour), they added.

And the Parker Solar Probe survived its latest trial by fire in good condition.

“Mission controllers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, United States, received a green ‘A’ beacon from the spacecraft soon after perihelion, meaning all systems were performing as designed and that the spacecraft was in good health,” mission team members wrote in an update 3 September.

The £1.2 billion ($1.5 billion) Parker Solar Probe launched in August 2018, on a mission to help researchers better understand how the Sun ticks. If all goes according to plan, the spacecraft will make a total of two dozen close solar flybys during its seven years of operation, getting closer and closer to our star over time.

The spacecraft already holds the all-time speed and close-solar-approach records, but it will continue setting new marks through 2025. During the final few flybys, for example, the Parker Solar Probe will get within a mere 6.16 million kilometres (3.83 million miles) of the solar surface, reaching top speeds of about 690,000 kilometres per hour (430,000 miles per hour).

The spacecraft’s various observations should help scientists solve some long-standing solar mysteries, mission team members have said. Chief among those puzzles are how the solar wind, the stream of charged particles flowing from the Sun, gets accelerated to such tremendous speeds, and why the Sun’s outer atmosphere is so much hotter than its surface.

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