NASA’s Parker solar probe went faster than any spacecraft

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An artist’s impression of the Parker solar probe

NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Steve Gribben

The fastest spaceship ever built has almost touched the sun. NASA’s Parker solar probe, launched in 2018, set two records at once: the spacecraft closest to the sun and the highest speed achieved.

On April 29, the probe made its closest passage to the sun, just over 10 million kilometers from its surface. By the time of the closest approach, it was moving at about 150 kilometers per second relative to the sun, the fastest ever moved by a spacecraft.

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At this rate, it would take about 4.5 minutes to cover the entire circumference of the Earth, or about 40 minutes to fly from Earth to the Moon. This is about 0.05% of the speed of light.

But the Parker solar probe is not yet finished: the flight over the sun on April 29 was only the eighth passage of the spacecraft out of the 24 planned before the end of the mission at the end of 2025. At each passage, the probe starts to leave. beyond Venus to use the planet’s gravity to shape its orbit, pushing the spacecraft closer and closer to the sun.

This proximity will help it evolve at increasing speeds, with an expected top speed of around 200 kilometers per second. At that rate, it will be almost three times faster than previous record holders, a pair of spacecraft called the Helios probes that studied the sun in the 1970s.

Up close, the Parker solar probe will be just under 7 million kilometers from the sun, more than 6 times closer to it than the Helios probes, which held the record until Parker beat it. in 2018.

While the spacecraft is close to the sun, its objectives lie below the surface – the probe is designed to measure magnetic fields in the region and trace the flow of energy in the sun. These measurements should help researchers understand how the sun expels the energetic particles that make up the solar wind, as well as the mystery of why the sun’s outermost layer is hotter than the inner layers.

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Travis Durham

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