On Dec. 6, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe began the 14th of 24 planned close approaches to the Sun, eventually coming within 5.3 million miles of the solar surface.
The closest approach – called perihelion – occurred on Dec. 11 at 8:16 a.m. EST, during which the spacecraft traveled at 364,639 miles per hour – fast enough to fly from New York to Tokyo in just over a minute. This is just under Parker’s record speed of 364,660 mph, set on Nov. 21, 2021.
During the spacecraft’s previous close encounter with the Sun on Sept. 5, it flew through one of the most powerful coronal mass ejections in recorded history. As the Sun’s activity continues to increase on its approach toward solar maximum – the period of greatest activity during the Sun’s 11-year cycle – scientists expect Parker to fly through and observe more exciting phenomena from its unprecedented vantage point.
“It’s a very exciting time to have a spacecraft flying so close to the Sun and observing its activity,” said Nour Raouafi, Parker Solar Probe project scientist at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. “The first part of the mission was during the solar cycle minimum, when we learned so much about the relatively quiet conditions in the solar atmosphere. Now Parker Solar Probe embarks on a renewed journey where the Sun is more active. Every close encounter opens up new opportunities to understand better how the Sun works and how it affects us here on Earth and beyond.”
During the encounter, which ends Dec. 16, the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter, NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory-A (STEREO-A), and radar telescopes on Earth will view the Sun from the same angle as Parker at the beginning of the encounter. They will slowly progress to an approximately 90-degree angle from Parker on the inbound side of the encounter. ESA’s BepiColombo mission will start out viewing the Sun from the same angle as Parker and progress to observing the Sun from an approximately 90-degree angle from Parker on the outbound side of the encounter. This orientation could provide an opportunity to observe a solar event from all sides.
The spacecraft entered the encounter in good health, with all systems operating normally. Parker Solar Probe is scheduled to check back in with mission operators at Johns Hopkins APL – where it was also designed and built – on Dec. 17.
Parker Solar Probe was developed as part of NASA’s Living With a Star program to explore aspects of the Sun-Earth system that directly affect life and society. The Living With a Star program is managed by the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. APL designed, built, manages, and operates the spacecraft.
By Ashley Hume
Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory