On Oct. 31, 2018, Parker Solar Probe began its first of 24 solar encounters. This period — which lasts until Nov. 11 — is the time during which the spacecraft is within 0.25 astronomical units, or 23.2 million miles, of the Sun’s center. Parker Solar Probe’s four suites of science instruments are on and collecting data throughout this phase, giving scientists their closest-yet look at this dynamic region of the Sun’s outer atmosphere.
This solar encounter encompasses the first perihelion of the mission, the point at which Parker Solar Probe is closest to the Sun. Perihelion is expected at about 10:28 p.m. EST on Nov. 5. The spacecraft will come within 15 million miles of the Sun’s surface and clock in at a top speed of 213,200 miles per hour relative to the Sun — setting new records for both closest solar approach and top heliocentric speed by a spacecraft. At perihelion, Parker Solar Probe will fly through material at about 3.6 million degrees Fahrenheit — but because material in this region is so tenuous, it doesn’t influence the temperature of the spacecraft. However, the Sun’s intense radiation heats the Sun-facing side of the spacecraft’s heat shield, called the Thermal Protection System, to about 820 F.
For several days around the Nov. 5 perihelion, Parker Solar Probe will be completely out of contact with Earth because of interference from the Sun’s overwhelming radio emissions.
Parker Solar Probe employs a host of autonomous systems to keep the spacecraft safe without guidance from Earth — including automatic retraction of the solar panels to regulate their temperature, attitude control using solar limb sensors that ensures all of the instruments remain in the heat shield’s shadow, and a sophisticated guidance and control system that keeps the spacecraft pointed correctly. This autonomy is key not only during no-contact phases around the 24 planned perihelia but also throughout the mission, when the round-trip light time — the time it takes for radio signals to go back and forth between Earth and Parker Solar Probe — can be up to 31 minutes.
During the solar encounter phase, Parker Solar Probe’s four instrument suites measure the properties of material directly within the Sun’s outer atmosphere. These observations, gathered closer to the Sun than ever before, will help scientists begin to answer outstanding questions about the Sun’s fundamental physics — including how particles and solar material are accelerated out into space at such high speeds and why the Sun’s atmosphere, the corona, is so much hotter than the surface below.
Because of the spacecraft’s distance from Earth and position relative to the Sun, it will be several weeks after the end of the solar encounter before Parker Solar Probe begins transmitting this science data back to Earth.