NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, launched just under two months ago atop a ULA Delta-IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, successfully conducted its first gravity-assist around Venus early this morning, October 3, as it makes its way to the sun on a science mission unlike anything we’ve seen before.
Built by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, the car-sized spacecraft will become the fastest human-made object ever when it makes its closest approaches to the sun, traveling at speeds of up to 430,000 miles per hour (700,000 kilometers per hour) as it swoops through the Sun’s atmosphere 24 times over a period of 7 years, or as fast as traveling from New York City to Tokyo in less than one minute.
Using the gravitational tug of Venus to gradually shrink its orbit, the spacecraft will come closer to our star than any spacecraft has before, facing brutal heat and radiation, in order to provide the first ever samplings of a star’s corona, which is visible to the human eye during a total solar eclipse and can reach temperatures upwards of 10 million degrees Fahrenheit.
This morning’s first pass of Venus came within 1,500 miles of the planet’s surface at approximately 4:45am EDT, changing Parker Solar Probe’s trajectory to take it closer to the Sun.
“Detailed data from the flyby will be assessed over the next few days. This data allows the flight operations team to prepare for the remaining six Venus gravity assists which will occur over the course of the seven-year mission”, says NASA.
On Oct 29, it will come within 27 million miles of the Sun, and on October 30 it will surpass a heliocentric speed of 153,454 miles per hour, which is the record for the fastest spacecraft measured relative to the Sun, set by Helios 2 in 1976.
The spacecraft’s first solar encounter will begin on Oct 31, losing contact with Earth as it focuses on collecting valuable science data. Closest approach for this first solar pass will occur on Nov. 5 or 6, followed by re-establishing contact with Earth and downlinking the science data back home throughout last month of the year.
“Parker Solar Probe is going to revolutionize our understanding of the Sun, the only star we can study up close,” said Nicola Fox, project scientist for Parker Solar Probe at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland. “The mission undertakes one of the most extreme journeys of exploration ever tackled by a human-made object.”