During August of last year, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe (PSP) made the closest-ever flyby of the sun in human history, managing to collect huge amounts of invaluable data. PSP also became the fastest-ever man-made object during the process. According to NASA’s website at about 05:54 GMT, PSP surpassed 246,960km (153,454 mph) as calculated by the mission team, making it the fastest-ever human-made object relative to the Sun. This breaks the record set by the German-American Helios 2 mission in April 1976.
PSP was originally supposed to use Jupiter’s gravitational influence to propel the probe out of the planets plane and over the Sun’s poles, from there it would record its measurements and gather valuable data. Thankfully, a celestial navigator from the Maryland lab, Yanpin Guo found a way to send PSP around Venus instead. This route, she reasoned, would give the probe more time to spend orbiting the sun. Since its initial flyby in 2018, PSP has passed by the sun 3 times and is set to perform another 21 flybys in the next 6 years.
#ParkerSolarProbe is getting ready to release some exciting new science! Join mission experts — including a Goddard scientist — for #NASAScience Live on Dec. 4 to hear more. Tune in at 3 p.m. ET, and tag questions with #askNASA! https://t.co/SlmUhCypvl pic.twitter.com/la0FwsDLtU
— NASA Goddard (@NASAGoddard) December 4, 2019
NASA is hoping the data gathered by PSP will answer two important questions. The first being how and why solar winds (streams of particles) are accelerated to their tremendous speeds. The second question researchers are looking to answer is why the sun’s corona, or outer atmosphere, is so much hotter than its surface. Temperatures in the sun’s atmosphere can reach astonishing heights of 1.1 million°C whereas the surface of the sun is 5,505 °C.
To answer the question of why the corona is so hot, the probe zooms through the sun’s extremely hot atmosphere once every five months, this provides researchers with an unprecedented up-close look at the Earth’s nearest star. So far, the PSP has come within 24 million kilometers of the sun’s surface. That distance may sound like the probe is still quite far from the sun, but prior to this mission, the closest a probe has ever gotten to the sun was a distance of 44 million km.
The information gathered by PSP will be reported in four different papers published online via the journal Nature.
Feature image: Twitter/ @NASAUniverse