NASA’s sun-grazing spacecraft is gathering the most data ever on its upcoming skim past our star, with instruments turned on for nearly two months.
Parker Solar Probe launched in August 2018 for a seven-year mission studying the sun by flying deeper into its outer atmosphere, called the corona, than any previous spacecraft has. When the mission launched, scientists expected the instruments on board to gather data for about 11 days on each flyby.
But the spacecraft has been faring better than expected, and scientists began increasing the duration of observations on successive orbits. And during those extra observations, scientists began seeing very strange phenomena in the stream of charged particles flowing off the sun, called the solar wind, farther away from the sun. Hence the additional extension for this flyby. Observations began on May 9 and will continue through June 28, mission team members said.
“We have a real opportunity here to see what’s going on in these regions further from the sun’s corona,” Nour Raouafi, Parker Solar Probe project scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, said in a NASA statement.
“While our primary goal is to understand the mysteries at the sun’s corona and the ‘young’ solar wind closer to the sun, there is evidence indicating very interesting physics to explore earlier in the orbit and link that to what occurs near the sun,” Raouafi said. “We have the capability to gather this data and see what it yields.”
So, on this flyby, Parker Solar Probe turned on its instruments while it was still 62.5 million miles (101 million kilometers) away from the sun, or nearly three times more distant than on a typical flyby. Now, scientists have to wait: Parker Solar Probe is pretty taciturn during flybys, and the spacecraft won’t send its data home until late summer.
The spacecraft will make its closest approach this orbit on June 7, when it will be about 11.6 million miles (19 million km) away from the sun. As its mission continues, Parker Solar Probe’s closest approach will move ever closer to the sun; by the end of the mission, the spacecraft will be just 4 million miles (6 million km) away from our star.
In order to get that close, the spacecraft must make successive loops past Venus, and after next month’s closest approach, Parker Solar Probe will do just that on July 11. During that maneuver, the spacecraft’s instruments will study Venus, including catching an 11-minute eclipse, according to the statement.