The NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) has already dubbed ” the fastest vehicle ever built by man “, and in recent weeks the probe Parker Solar Probe has proven trustworthy beating several records, the latest completion of its tenth approach to the sun out of a total of 24: this time the probe has reached 8.5 million kilometers from the surface of the Sun , a result never achieved before, with a speed that according to NASA estimates would allow it to travel from the Earth to the Moon in less than an hour.
On November 21, 2021 at 4:25 AM EST (08:25 GMT), the Parker Solar Probe reached a speed of 586,864 km / h, also becoming the fastest man-made object ever. Launched on 12 August 2018 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket, with the latter overflight, Parker is at the midpoint of the 10th approach, which began on 16 November and ended on 26 November.
Despite the hostile environment close to the sun, the spacecraft has not experienced criticality and all systems continue to function normally. To obtain the data recorded during the mission, however, it will be necessary to wait for the period between 23 December and 9 January, because while it is close to the Sun Parker is unable to send information: in those days, the probe will send the data to the operators of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory so that they can collect and process them.
Designed and built by the Johns Hopkins University (APL) Applied Physics Laboratory , the Parker Solar Probe is configured to approach the Sun at its maximum allowable speed. Thanks to the data already collected, NASA experts have discovered hitherto unknown aspects relating to the Sun, such as the amount of dust in its vicinity.
“We are observing higher amounts of dust near the sun – explained Nour Raouafi, one of the scientists participating in the Parker Solar Probe project – The exciting thing is that it is greatly improving our understanding of the innermost regions of our heliosphere, giving us a idea of an environment that, until now, was a total mystery “.
To detect the dust, the solar probe used the FIELDS sensors it is equipped with, an instrument capable of capturing the electrical charge of the plasma clouds generated by the vehicle’s impact with the dust grains in space. The Parker probe also has a camera, the WISPR, capable of collecting fragments of material ejected from the vehicle structures after the impact with the grains, and it is in this way that the data and images were collected.
Two loops around Venus in 2023 and 2024
The Parker Solar Probe team prepared down to the smallest detail for the spacecraft’s journey through a potentially dangerous environment, at least for what had been discovered before launch in 2018 . However, risks remain high as the spacecraft approaches the Sun at ever faster speeds.
“We designed materials and components that survive the hyper-fast dust impacts and the effects of even smaller particles created in these impacts,” said Jim Kinnison, Parker Solar Probe mission systems engineer. dusty environment , tested the reaction of materials to dust particles and installed on-board systems that keep Parker Solar Probe safe in this uncharted region. “
The spacecraft team also noted that occasionally star-tracking cameras used as part of the guidance and control system see reflected light from dust and shattered particles, which can momentarily disrupt the ability to see stars. Kinnison noted, however, that this does not compromise vehicle or operations safety, and that tracking sensors aren’t the only way the probe has to check heading.
“Because the system was built to be robust and highly autonomous, the loss of data from any source does not affect the spacecraft’s ability to control the spacecraft’s attitude and, in the worst case, can only function indefinitely with the sensors of the spacecraft. ‘solar limb. The spacecraft is still proving that it can handle this unexpected dusty environment. “
This is good news, as Parker Solar Probe is poised to get closer and closer to the Sun. The spacecraft will make two more passes close to Venus , in August 2023 and November 2024, and will reach 6.2 million. of kilometers from the solar surface in December 2024 at a speed in excess of 430,000 miles per hour, equivalent to more than 692,000 km per hour .