On August 12, 2018, NASA launched the Parker Solar Probe mission. Since then, the probe has come closer to the sun than any other space probe before: At the end of October 2018, Parker Solar Probe broke the previous record of the Helios 2 probe from 1976: Parker Solar Probe broke the 43 million kilometer mark. For the new probe, however, that was still cool, because in the first three orbits it came close to the sun to a distance of 24 million kilometers – and has been in close contact ever since. On April 29, 2021, Parker Solar Probe approached the solar center in the 8th orbit to about 11 million kilometers. The ninth perihelion – the closest closest approach to the sun – took place on August 9, 2021 and brought Parker Solar Probe 10.4 million kilometers from the sun’s surface. The solar probe then approached for the tenth time on November 21, 2021 – a new record with a distance of only 8.5 million kilometers. The probe whizzed past the sun at more than 500,000 kilometers per hour.
Closest rendezvous between Parker Solar Probe and the sun
The closest encounter between the probe and the sun is called perihelion. As NASA had hoped, the solar probe’s heat protection has held up so far and it has not burned its wings. Parker Solar Probe is expected to withstand much more in the next few years. The next flyby in the sun will take place on February 25, 2022
Parker Solar Probe orbits
Parker Solar Probe will continue to draw in closer circles. It will make a total of 24 close attempts to approach the sun by 2024. On December 24, 2024, it is expected to approach it from a distance of only six million kilometers.
First approximations, first insights
In December 2019, the scientists of the NASA mission published the first results from the observations of the Parker Solar Probe. At that time, the spacecraft had already come close to the sun three times and examined the solar wind. It is therefore much more stormy than previously thought.
Solar storms, polar lights and power outages
Our sun is a mighty star that is quite turbulent: every now and then it spits out a bunch of high-energy particles. They reach the earth’s atmosphere, can paint us auroras in the sky, but also paralyze our power grid. Many processes in and on the sun are still puzzling scientists today: How are these spat out particles accelerated? And how can it actually be that the sun’s outer layer of the atmosphere, the so-called corona, is hundreds of times hotter than its surface?
“It’s a bit like walking away from a campfire and then suddenly it got warmer.”
Nicky Fox, Project Scientist, Johns Hopkins University
Parker Solar Probe takes a close look at the sun
In order to better predict solar storms in the future, NASA wants to get closer to the sun than ever before. The Parker Solar Probe will approach the sun within six million kilometers and will have to withstand more than 1,300 degrees. In the vicinity of the sun, the solar probe reaches a speed of around 200 kilometers per second.
The probe, the size of a small car and weighing around 700 kilograms, uses four instruments to inspect the sun every time it approaches: FIELDS, SWEAP and ISʘIS measure electrical and magnetic fields and analyze the speed, temperature and density of the particles. WISPR, a telescope, observes the corona and can take photos.
“The Parker Solar Probe will answer questions about solar physics that have haunted us for more than six decades. It’s a spaceship loaded with technological advances that will unravel many of the greatest mysteries about our star.”
Nicky Fox, Project Scientist, Johns Hopkins University
A hot box: Parker Solar Probe stays cool
Why does the sun’s corona get so hot? That is what the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft is supposed to clarify.
A two and a half meter and twelve centimeter thick carbon heat shield with a reflective ceramic coating and a liquid-based cooling system ensure that Parker Solar Probe stays as cool as possible. No matter how close the spacecraft gets to the sun and how hot it gets, Parker Solar Probe shouldn’t use it to heat up to more than 30 degrees.
Parker Solar Probe
For the first time, NASA has named a mission after a living person: the astrophysicist Eugene Parker studied the solar wind as early as the 1950s and coined the term “solar wind” in the first place.
The probe receives its energy from solar cell wings, which are also designed for the extreme requirements. Thanks to its on-board system, Parker Solar Probe can act independently when, for example, things have to be done quickly or the probe cannot communicate with the earth. Seven sun sensors keep watch in the shadow of the heat shield. If you suddenly get too much sunlight, Parker Solar Probe will automatically correct your course to prevent the instruments from overheating.
“Parker Solar Probe is heading to an area of space that we’ve never explored before. It’s very exciting to finally get a look. I would like more detailed solar wind measurements. I’m sure there will be some surprises. There are it always. “
Eugene Parker, astrophysicist, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, the probe is named after him
Venus helps the space probe to fly to the sun
To get to the sun, 55 times more energy is required than to fly to Mars. Therefore, the solar probe does not fly directly to the sun, but uses the gravitational force of Venus: During the entire mission time, the Parker Solar Probe swings around our neighboring planet seven times and with these swing-bys it gathers momentum around the sun every time afterwards to approach – on an extremely eccentric orbit that only briefly brings you close to the sun.
The space probe swings a total of 24 times in its orbit around the sun, in December 2024 from very close range.
“We’ve been analyzing the sun for decades – now we’re going straight to where all the action is.”
Alex Young, Wissenschaftler, Goddard Space Flight Center
NASA Video: Why Isn’t the Parker Solar Probe Melting? (English)
Why Won’t it Melt? How NASA’s Solar Probe will Survive the Sun
- NASA launches Parker Solar Probe: August 10, 2018, 5:05 p.m., radioWelt, Bavaria 2.
- Is the sun special? August 10, 2018, 7.15 p.m., alpha-centauri, ARD-alpha.
- Superstern Sonne: July 25th, 2018, 9 p.m., Planet Wissen, ARD-alpha.