It has been dubbed NASA’s “mission to touch the Sun”, but the Parker Solar Probe is actually orbiting the centre of our planetary system, rather than propelling into its fiery demise.
- The solar probe has begun its second orbit of the Sun
- It is expected to get within about 24 million kilometres of the Sun on this orbit
- Scientists are hoping it will help them predict space weather effects that “cause havoc” on Earth
The probe last month completed its first orbit around the Sun just 161 days after its launch into space, and is now into its second lap.
So far it has delivered more than 17 gigabits of data, which will take until April to be fully downloaded.
But already the team at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, who manage the mission, are excited by what they have seen.
“The data we have received hints at many new things that we’ve not seen before and at potential new discoveries,” project scientist Nour Raouafi said.
“Parker Solar Probe is delivering on the mission’s promise of revealing the mysteries of our Sun.”
Now it is on track for its second perihelion, or closest approach to the Sun, on April 4.
This will see the spacecraft located about 24 million kilometres from the Sun.
While being that close to the Sun will not destroy the probe, scientists are now preparing it for the close encounter.
The spacecraft’s solid state recorder is being emptied to make room for new data and it will be loaded with a new automated command sequence, containing about one month’s worth of instructions.
This will be the second of 24 circuits around the Sun for the Parker Solar Probe, which can be tracked online.
If everything goes according to plan, the probe will continue orbiting the Sun until 2025.
The plan is for the spacecraft to gradually shrink its orbit, eventually coming within a little more than 6 million kilometres of the Sun.
It is fitted with a 11.43-centimetre-thick carbon-composite solar shield, which will face temperatures of as much as 1,400 degrees Celsius.
However, the data-generating equipment will be protected from the heat, with scientists aiming to keep the core at a pleasant 29 degrees.
Why send a probe to the Sun?
Scientists want to use the spacecraft to find out more about the corona, the outermost jacket of gasses in the Sun’s atmosphere.
The solar corona is mysterious to scientists for its incredibly high temperature, which is much hotter than the Sun’s surface.
According to a NASA factsheet, the probe is fitted with equipment designed to trace how energy moves through the solar corona.
It will image solar winds, the term for the stream of gas and electricity-charged particles spewed from Sun.
Scientists hope the project will help to predict space weather effects “that can cause havoc at Earth”.
This study will also give scientists insight into how to improve satellite communications, power grid issues, radiation exposure on airline flights and even pipeline erosion.
“We’ve learned a lot about how the spacecraft operates and reacts to the solar environment, and I’m proud to say the team’s projections have been very accurate,” the probe’s project manager Andy Driesman said.
“It’s been an illuminating and fascinating first orbit.”
What will happen to the probe?
When the Parker Solar Probe launched from Florida on August 12, 2018, it was the last time it would see Earth.
It’s not known exactly how the probe will meet its demise, but Mr Driesman gave UK’s The Telegraph his predictions.
“Eventually the spacecraft will run out of propellant and will leave altitude control and parts of it will transition into the Sun,” he said.
“But hopefully in 10 to 20 years there is going to be this carbon disc and that will be around to the end of the solar system.”