NASA’s Parker solar surveyor became a record-setter at the beginning of its mission when it took the title of fastest spacecraft in history from the wildly successful New Horizons probe. It made history again a few weeks later by flying through the sun’s corona and beaming back data. Now, NASA reports that Parker has completed a full orbit of the sun, and it’s diving back for another pass.
Parker entered full operational status on Jan. 1 with all systems operating normally. It has started relaying mountains of data via the Deep Space network — NASA says it has collected more than 17 gigabytes so far. Parker has collected so much data that it’ll take several more months to get all of it sent back. The data dump from the first orbit should be done just in time for Parker to dive into the sun’s corona again.
In preparation for the upcoming solar pass, NASA is busily clearing space on the probe’s internal solid state drives. As data makes it back to Earth, NASA deletes the corresponding files on Parker. The spacecraft is also getting new navigational information, which NASA transmits one month at a time.
NASA says it expects Parker to reach perihelion (the closest approach to the sun) on Apr. 4. This will be the second of 24 planned orbits that promise to advance our understanding of the sun. Parker’s mission has been in the works for years. NASA has long wanted to study the sun’s corona, but the technology to protect a probe was beyond our abilities until just recently. You’d probably expect the surface of the sun to be hotter than the space around it, but that’s not the case. The corona of ionized plasma surrounding the sun is around one million Kelvin, 300 times hotter than the surface.
Parker has a 4.5-inch carbon composite foam heat shield sandwiched between two carbon fiber sheets. NASA wasn’t sure how well it would perform until Parker was inside the corona, but now the agency believes Parker will have no trouble completing all 24 orbits without becoming a ball of molten metal.
Perihelion for the April orbit will be just 15 million miles (24.1 million kilometers). That’s slightly closer than last time, but the craft will move in a bit with each orbit until getting within 3.8 million miles of the surface in the next few years.
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