Parker Solar Probe Update: Spacecraft remains intact after close encounter

The Parker Solar Probe recently made the closest approach to the Sun by any other spacecraft before it


The Parker Solar Probe will encounter blistering temperatures of 1,370 degrees Celsius (2,500 degrees Fahrenheit) as it approaches the Sun. Image credit: JHUAPL

Parker Solar Probe is alive and well after skimming by the Sun at just 24 million kilometres (15 million miles) from our star’s surface. This is far closer than any spacecraft has ever gone — the previous record was set by Helios B in 1976 and broken by Parker on 29 October 2018 — and this manoeuvre has exposed the spacecraft to intense heat and solar radiation in a complex solar wind environment.

“Parker Solar Probe was designed to take care of itself and its precious payload during this close approach, with no control from us on Earth — and now we know it succeeded,” says Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency headquarters in Washington, D.C., United States. “Parker is the culmination of six decades of scientific progress. Now, we have realised humanity’s first close visit to our star, which will have implications not just here on Earth, but for a deeper understanding of our universe.”

Mission controllers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab received the status beacon from the spacecraft at 9:46pm GMT (4:46pm EST) on 7 November 2018. The beacon indicates status “A” — the best of all four possible status signals, meaning that Parker Solar Probe is operating well with all instruments running and collecting science data and, if there were any minor issues, they were resolved autonomously by the spacecraft.

At its closest approach on 5 November 2018, called perihelion, Parker Solar Probe reached a top speed of 343,100 kilometres (213,200 miles) per hour, setting a new record for spacecraft speed. Along with new records for the closest approach to the Sun, Parker Solar Probe will repeatedly break its own speed record as its orbit draws closer to the star and the spacecraft travels faster and faster at perihelion.

At this distance, the intense sunlight heated the Sun-facing side of Parker Solar Probe’s heat shield, called the Thermal Protection System, to about 440 degrees Celsius (820 degrees Fahrenheit). This temperature will climb up to 1,370 degrees Celsius (2,500 degrees Fahrenheit) as the spacecraft makes closer approaches to the Sun — but all the while, the spacecraft instruments and systems that are protected by the heat shield are generally kept in the mid-80s degrees Fahrenheit.

Parker Solar Probe’s first solar encounter phase began on 31 October 2018, and the spacecraft will continue collecting science data through the end of the solar encounter phase on 11 November 2018. It will be several weeks after the end of the solar encounter phase before the science data begins downlinking to Earth.

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