NASA’s solar probe is ready to make its close encounter with the Sun

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will be making its third flyby to the Sun Today September 1, to help provide data that could help uncover the secrets of our Galaxy’s largest source of energy. 

The Parker Solar Probe is a $1.5 billion mission to explore the sun like never before because it aims to reach the Sun—precisely, the corona or its aura of plasma, which is far hotter than its visible surface.

Specifically, scientists are still baffled by the fact that the Sun’s corona is millions of degrees hot (Fahrenheit or Celsius), while its surface is only about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit (5,500 degrees Celsius).

Launched in August 2018, NASA scientists hope that this third dive, a part of the 7-year mission, will help shed light as to how heat and energy move through the corona and how it is exponentially hotter than the Sun’s surface. Furthermore, explore what accelerates the solar winds that affect Earth and other planets. 

The probe is named after Eugene Parker, who first hypothesized that high-speed matter and magnetism regularly escaped the Sun and that it affected the planets and space throughout our solar system.

The phenomenon, which Parker describes, is called the solar wind. We know that because of this, the Sun can create the heliosphere—a bubble-like force that surrounds our galaxy, which creates the potential for habitable planets to thrive.

In NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which will perform 24 dives into the corona, they hope to help explain what drives these forces in the first place. 

An artist’s illustration of the Parker Solar Probe coming close to the Sun’s corona in one of its loops to discover the secrets of our Universe’s largest source of energy.
Source: NASA | Johns Hopkins APL | Steve Gribben

So far, the solar probe was able to conduct two successful flybys. The third close encounter will come today around 1:50 p.m. EDT (1750 GMT).

Today’s close encounter is also motivated by substantial data return from the first two. Its mission team at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland has received the final transmission for the 22 gigabytes of science data collected during those two encounters. That’s 50 percent more than it expected to have acquired by then. Apparently, the spacecraft’s telecommunications system is performing better than expected.

Scientists want to take advantage of these quick data returns and start formulating theories based on these data to explain the Sun’s behavior better. Hopefully before the end of its mission, in 2025.

On this third flyby, however, scientists will be putting the probe to more work by making its instruments work for 35 days straight. That’s three times as long as they did on the first two orbits. The longer observing window means that the probe will be taking measurements from about twice as far away from the visible surface of the sun.

On its closest approach to the sun near the end of the mission, the Parker Solar Probe will become the fastest spacecraft ever.
Source: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

At its closest approach, Parker Solar probe will fly within 3.7 million miles (6 million kilometers) of the sun’s surface — more than eight times closer than any other spacecraft and more than eight times closer than Mercury.

Gearing towards the upcoming fourth dive to the Sun, the Parker Solar Probe will be taking advantage of the Venus’ gravity to help push it closer to the sun when the time comes at the expected Jan. 29, 2020 dive.

“Parker Solar Probe is going to answer questions about solar physics that we’ve puzzled over for more than six decades,” Parker Solar Probe Project scientist Nicola Fox of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, said in a statement

“It’s a spacecraft loaded with technological breakthroughs that will solve many of the largest mysteries about our star, including finding out why the sun’s corona is so much hotter than its surface. And we’re very proud to be able to carry Gene’s name with us on this amazing voyage of discovery.”

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