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June 17, 2024

Parker Solar Probe Set for Historic Encounter with the Sun

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Jan 6, 2024

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is set to make history in 2024 by flying closer to the Sun than any spacecraft before it. This daring mission promises to revolutionize our understanding of our star and provide vital data to help protect astronauts and technology in space from harmful solar radiation.

Background of the Mission

The Parker Solar Probe mission was launched in 2018 with the audacious goal of “touching the Sun.”

Parker Solar Probe Mission Facts

- Launched: August 12, 2018
- Target: The Sun
- Closest Approach: About 6.2 million km from the Sun's surface 
- Speed at Closest Approach: Approximately 692,000 km/h
- Mission End: 2025 (expected)
- Key Objectives: 
  - Trace how energy and heat move through the solar corona
  - Explore what accelerates the solar wind
  - Help us predict changes in solar activity

The probe has already broken multiple records, including fastest human-made object at speeds over 690,000 km/hr. Up until now, the Parker probe has completed multiple close flybys of the Sun at varying distances – but its closest approach is yet to come.

In December 2024, the Parker Solar Probe will reach under 6.2 million km from the surface of the Sun. This would bring it well within the Sun’s outer atmosphere, known as the corona. Being this close will allow the probe’s suite of instruments to take direct samples and observations to help unravel mysteries about our star that have evaded scientists for decades.

Final Close Approach Will Bring Probe Into Uncharted Territory

The probe’s final close approach in 2024 will carry it closer than ever before to the Sun. At this distance, it will be deep inside the solar corona – further than any previous mission.

Parker Solar Probe's 2024 Close Approach

- Date: December 2024
- Closest Distance to Sun: Under 6.2 million km  
- Speed at Approach: Approximately 692,000 km/hr
- Location in Sun's Atmosphere: Inside the corona 
- Previous Record Holder: Helios 2 probe at 43 million km in 1976

“This will be a truly revolutionary moment in space exploration,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Parker is poised to immerse itself deeper in the solar atmosphere than we have ever reached before. The data it beams back will help unlock mysteries about our star that have lingered for decades.”

At this close range, Parker’s instruments will be able to directly sample solar material from the corona itself. This region around the Sun plays a major role in space weather that can impact technology and astronauts in space. But it remains somewhat of an enigma to scientists since it is incredibly difficult to observe.

“The solar corona has been somewhat of a mystery to us,” said astrophysicist Lika Guhathakurta, who manages the Parker program. “But Parker is providing observations detailing its behaviour and environment with unprecedented clarity.”

Daring Maneuvers Bringing Spacecraft Ever Closer

To reach its record-breaking target, Parker has been using Venus gravity assists to incrementally bring itself closer to the Sun over a series of orbits.

With each pass, Parker has set new records for closest approach to our star. On recent orbits, Parker has flown as close as 18.8 million km – already far exceeding the previous record of 43 million km.

“Every time we nudge in closer, Parker reveals new insights about phenomena we have struggled to understand for decades,” Guhathakurta said. “Our 2024 close approach will bring us well within the corona itself – it’s incredibly exciting.”

Final Orbit Promises Unparalleled Observations

At under 6.2 million km away in 2024, Parker’s instruments will be saturated with observations. According to NASA, Parker will gather enough data during its close approach alone to keep scientists busy for years.

“The 2024 encounter will be a bonanza of never-before-seen data that will revolutionize our knowledge of the Sun and its effects,” said solar physicist Kelly Korreck, head of the Parker mission science office at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

Some of the key areas that Parker’s final close orbit are expected to shed light on:

Solar Winds

Parker data shows the corona is where blisteringly hot solar material gets accelerated out into space as solar wind. At close approach, Parker’s instruments will directly sample solar winds as they emanate out of the corona’s surface.

“This lets us follow the chain from the very start to unravel what processes drive and accelerate solar wind,” Korreck said. “Which can massively affect satellites, communications, astronauts and more in space.”

Coronal Heating

At close approach, Parker will also investigate the mysterious process that heats the corona to millions of degrees Celsius – far hotter than the surface below it.

“We still don’t understand how the corona gets so inexplicably hotter,” said solar scientist Nour Raouafi. “Or how heat and energy get transferred through this region. Parker’s final encounter aims to measure this directly.”

By seeing solar heating mechanisms first-hand, scientists also hope to better understand solar outbursts that can disrupt satellites and astronauts in space.

Impact on Future Missions

The data from Parker’s unprecedented solar access in 2024 is also expected to help NASA plan future expeditions deeper into space.

“Parker’s observations will allow us to better predict major space weather events the Sun can throw at us,” Korreck said. “Which is crucial for protecting astronauts and equipment on future long-duration space voyages to the Moon, Mars and beyond.”

So while the Parker Solar Probe itself will not be exiting the inner Solar System, the findings from its daring mission around the Sun aim to safeguard future missions escaping its orbit.

Final Phases Leading to Closest Approach

As Parker prepares for its historic rendezvous with the Sun in 2024, the spacecraft still has several more solar encounters ahead where it will gather important data.

Over 2023, Parker will conduct three more flybys – in January, June and November. Each pass will bring it successively closer to its target under 6.2 million km away.

“Every solar encounter in the lead up to 2024 will provide observations to help us better understand and prepare for the extreme environment at close approach,” Korreck said.

Meanwhile, the spacecraft’s operations team will also be using 2023 to prepare Parker for intense conditions at near Solar proximity.

As Parker draws nearer to the Sun, the probe has to employ increasing measures to protect itself from extreme radiation levels. Special heat shields and other adaptations safeguard electronics and instruments against scorching temperatures in excess of 1370° Celsius.

“We will rigorously test Parker’s fault protections in 2023 rehearsals to confirm all systems are ready for prime time events in 2024,” said APL’s Rex Parker, leader of the spacecraft operations team.

Aftermath and Journey’s End

Once Parker transmits back its unprecedented solar findings from the 2024 flyby, the daring mission is scheduled to end sometime in 2025.

By this stage, the probe’s extreme proximity to the Sun will likely have fried much of its instrumentation and electronics beyond recovery.

“We expect Parker to keep functioning through the 2024 encounter, but likely won’t have enough left in it afterwards,” Parker said.

When Parker does eventually cease operations, mission scientists say the pioneering spacecraft will have completed its primary objective.

“By 2025, the spacecraft will have fulfilled its intended purpose and transformed our understanding about crucial processes around the Sun,” Guhathakurta said.

Parker’s groundbreaking mission promises to open new windows into the workings of our star. And its 2024 close solar encounter is guaranteed to be an historic moment marking a monumental achievement in space exploration.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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