NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is set to make history in 2024 by flying through the outer atmosphere of the Sun. This will be the closest any spacecraft has ever gotten to the Sun’s surface.
The Parker Solar Probe was launched in 2018 with the ambitious goal of “touching the Sun.” Over the course of 7 years, the spacecraft is using Venus’ gravity to gradually bring itself closer and closer to the Sun. With each flyby, Parker collects data that provides new insights into our star.
In 2024, Parker will make its closest approach yet, coming within 5 million miles of the Sun’s surface. While this seems far, it will actually graze the outer atmosphere known as the corona. This will allow Parker to sample particles and measure conditions in this very extreme environment for the first time.
Parker Solar Probe Vital Statistics
- Launched: August 12, 2018
- Closest Approach: 3.83 million miles in 2024
- Speed at Perihelion: 432,000 mph
- Orbital Period: 88 days
Lead Up to 2024 Sun Graze
Parker is currently making its 10th close approach to the Sun. With each perihelion (closest point), it collects data that is sent back to Earth for analysis.
Some key findings so far have included:
- Identifying previously unseen dust free zones and particle bursts near the Sun
- Pinpointing the origin site of solar energtic particles
- Revolutionizing our understanding of the solar wind and coronal heating processes
In 2023, Parker also completed a record setting close approach of just 11.3 million miles. Its speed exceeded 393,000 mph, making it the fastest human-made object relative to the Sun.
As 2024 nears, scientists are thrilled at the prospect of finally “touching” our star. Project scientist Nour Raouafi stated, “As we near this milestone, the spacecraft is already providing great insight that helps reshape our understanding of the Sun and its influence on the solar system.”
The 2024 Sun Graze
Parker’s 2024 perihelion is scheduled to occur in December. At its closest approach, the craft will zip through the Sun’s outer atmosphere at speeds over 430,000 mph. For comparison, this is fast enough to travel from New York City to Tokyo in less than a minute!
During the Sun graze, Parker’s heat shield will experience extreme heating over 2,500°F. But behind this protection, interior temps will remain near room temperature allowing Parker’s instruments to operate normally.
Four suites of cutting instruments will be primed to sample particles, fields, and waves in this unexplored environment:
Parker Solar Probe Instrument Payload
- FIELDS: Measures electric and magnetic fields
- ISʘIS: Images the corona and measures energetic particles
- SWEAP: Counts and analyzes solar wind particles
- WISPR: Takes visible light images of the corona
The data collected during this historic pass will be the closest observations of the Sun ever captured. It will unveil mysteries about the Sun’s atmosphere, the origin of the solar wind, and how our star impacts the planets.
What Happens Next
After completing its Sun graze, Parker will continue on an elliptical orbit that takes it out to Venus for its next flyby. Over the next 6 years, gravity assists from Venus will alter the tilt of Parker’s orbit bringing it even closer to the Sun.
In 2025, Parker is expected to break its own records by achieving a mind-boggling perihelion of just 3.83 million miles (well within the Sun’s corona). Its speed is projected to top out at over 430,000 mph.
Parker will ultimately complete 24 orbits, with the final 3 passes under 4 million miles. By 2030 when the mission ends, the spacecraft will have completely rewritten the books on solar science thanks to its unprecedented investigation of our local star.
The Parker Solar Probe’s 2024 Sun graze represents a monumental achievement for space exploration. The chance to actually touch the Sun has long been a dream for solar physicists. After over 5 years of pioneering work, Parker is now poised to deliver profound solar insights based on this direct sampling of the Sun’s outer corona. The new perspective on our star gained from this plucky probe promises to transform our fundamental understanding of the Sun-planet system.
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