Humanity just seems to be advancing when it comes to the world of science! NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is swinging by Venus on its unprecedented journey to the sun. Launched in August, the spacecraft gets a gravity assist today as it passes within 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) of Venus. The flyby is the first of seven that will draw Parker ever closer to the sun.
By the end of October, Parker will shatter the current record for close solar encounters, set by a NASA spacecraft in 1976 from 27 million miles (43 million kilometers) out. Parker will get within 15 million miles (25 million kilometers) of the sun’s surface in November.
Twenty-four such orbits – dipping into the sun’s upper atmosphere, or corona – are planned over the next seven years. The gap will eventually shrink to 3.8 million miles (6 million kilometers). The unmanned spacecraft is on an unprecedented quest that will take it straight through the edges of the corona, or outer solar atmosphere, just 3.8 million miles from the sun’s surface.
Previously, the closest an aircraft had come to the sun was 27 million miles.
This mission will require 55 times more energy than would be needed to reach Mars, according to NASA. The probe will rely on a series of gravity assists from Venus to slow down its sideways motion, allowing it to get just 3.8 million miles away from the sun’s surface. As NASA engineer Bobak Ferdowsi pointed out on Twitter, that’s the equivalent distance of just 4.43 suns positioned next to each other. This will put the Parker probe well within the sun’s corona, which extends about 5 million miles above the surface.
‘We’ll be going where no spacecraft has dared go before – within the corona of a star,’ said project scientist Nicky Fox, of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab.
‘With each orbit, we’ll be seeing new regions of the sun’s atmosphere and learning things about stellar mechanics that we’ve wanted to explore for decades.’
While orbiting the sun, the craft will swing around Venus seven times, using the planet’s gravity to push it closer and closer to our star with each pass; eventually, the Parker probe will get within 3.8 million miles of the sun’s surface.
The probe will eventually hit record-breaking speeds of 430,000 miles per hour, and will completes 24 orbits of the sun.
It will make its first fly past Venus in October, and is protected by a revolutionary new heat shield. That will set up the first solar encounter in November. It will be subjected to temperatures of roughly 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,371C) when it comes closer to the sun than any spacecraft in history – but, behind its thick heat shield, it will only feel like a hot summer day, with this sheltered region maxing out at about 85F (29C).