NASA‘s Parker Solar Probe has finalized its closest flyby of the Sun, orbiting the star at speeds of approximately 244,225 mph (393,042 kph). The spacecraft has confirmed the success of its fifth close browse past the Sun on Tuesday, June 9th.
The Parker Solar Probe signaled NASA engineers with a radio beacon tone after it passed by the Sun from about 11.5 million miles (18.6 million kilometers) of its surface. The vehicle also managed to match a speed record it earlier set on January 29th, during its fourth flyby of the Sun.
Using Venus’ Gravity to Get Closser to the Sun
Justyna Surowiec from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab explained: “Mission controllers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, received a ‘status A’ beacon from the spacecraft at 4.40 p.m. EDT. Status A is the best of four possible status signals and indicates that the spacecraft is operating nominally, and the instrument suites are collecting science data. This beacon tone comes after a five-day period where communications with the spacecraft were not possible.”
The spacecraft’s fifth close flyby took place at about 9:23 a.m. BST or 4:23 a.m. EDT on Sunday, June 7th. As the probe travels by the second planet from the Sun, Venus, it will emit some of its orbital energy and later get much closer to the star.
Parker Solar Probe is scheduled to pass approximately 516 miles (830 km) above Venus’ surface. As the vehicle flies around the planet, it will also observe an 11-minute solar eclipse when it goes through Venus’ shadow.
“This fifth orbit around the Sun includes Parker Solar Probe’s longest observation campaign to date. The spacecraft, which has already completed four progressively closer orbits, activated its instruments at a distance of 62.5 million miles from the Sun’s surface on May 9th, some 39 million miles farther from the Sun than the typical solar encounter. The full set of instruments will continue to collect data through June 28th, markedly longer than the mission’s standard 11-day encounters,” Surowiec said.
The dataset from this solar pass will be downloaded between late June and mid-August of this year, and then released to the public in November. Parker Solar Probe launched to space on August 12th, 2018, and at its closest, it will fly through the Sun’s corona within 3.8 million miles (6.1 million km) of the star’s surface.
Still, the spacecraft will need about seven years to get to this point, carrying out its mission until then and using Venus’ gravity seven times in order to get closer and closer to the Sun. Creeping so close to the star will enable it to study the Sun’s solar winds, which are streams of energized particles discharged by the star.
Solar winds are the behind numerous space weather events on Earth but are still somehow poorly understood. The probe was also programmed to analyze the way heat and energy move through the solar corona.
According to NASA, ‘scientists have sought these answers for more than 60 years, but the investigation requires sending a probe right through the 2,500F heat of the corona.’