Touching the sun sounds like a crazy dream. But in a technology that meets a recommendation 60 years ago to launch a probe for our local star, NASA's Parker Solar Probe shows that dreams really become true.
Built by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory broke the probe launched in August broke two records on Monday: First, shorter stretches of spacecraft have ever flown in relation to the sun and secondly, the speed is higher than any spacecraft in history.
Parker Solar Probe was only 26.55 million kilometers away when it reached the nearest point in relation to the sun – called perihelion – at 10:28 pm. East on Monday night, waving at an unprecedented 213,200 miles per hour while collecting scientific data.
But this post is just the first of many probes to break, as project manager Andrew Driesman of Johns Hopkins APL explains in a video released with the news.
"Closer to the sun than any other spacecraft"
"We will go closer to the sun than other spacecraft has gone before. We will not do it once, we will not do it twice – we'll do it 24 times, and it's scary."
At this first meeting, the automotive probe passed within 26.55 million miles of solar space, already comparable to the previous record of Helios 2 1976 in just under 27 million miles. In the next seven years, the probe will use Venus gravity to rely on closer and closer loops. It is slated to dip 3.8 million miles away from the surface at the end of the mission in 2025.
But in the sacred temperatures and hard radiation, researchers are looking forward to studying the solar magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles. To get close to the sun sets Parker Solar Probe in the sun's corona, the atmosphere around the sun reaching 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (or 1,377 degrees Celsius), which exceeds the temperature of the surface itself.
It's getting hot in here
To hit the heat, the spacecraft will protect its sun-protected side with a heat shield called Thermal protection system. Its low creativity name illustrates how strong this component in the probe is. The 160-pound screen, a 4.5 inch thick core set between superheated carbon composite, has such high heat capacity that it can handle 820 degrees Fahrenheit while keeping the instruments safe at room temperature.
Even with the thermal protection system, the heat forces scientists to keep communication simple. Of four different beacons, you confirm that everything is good, while the other three indicate different types of problems. During the days around perihelion, the sun's radio emissions will cut out communication until spacecraft can respond with a beep.
"We will most be in touch with spacecraft through the meeting, so all we will get is square squares," says Sanae Kubota, chief executive officer.
Using data – which takes about 30 minutes to send between the probe and the ground – the researchers are looking for a better understanding of space weather, such as windswind. Although the sun is 92.96 million miles away, space weather affects both astronauts' instruments and inhabitants back to earth by turning off satellites, including GPS systems.
For the fastest spacecraft ever, the scientific data that the probe collects can not come fast enough. Due to the spacecraft's orientation towards the sun, researchers have to wait several weeks before data can be transferred back to earth.