NASA’s Parker Solar probe smashed its own speed record, accelerating to a velocity as great as 101 miles per second, or more than 364,000 miles per hour, as it loops the sun.

To put its speed into perspective, if it set off from New York traveling at that speed, it would cover the 2,446 miles to Los Angeles in just over 24 seconds, setting off again from New York it would cross the Atlantic and travel to London in just over half a minute.

This was the probe’s 10th passage of the sun and speed records weren’t the only ones shattered during this flyby. The Parker Solar probe broke another one of its records by coming closer to our star than any craft ever created by humanity. The latest passage of the sun brought it to within just 5.3 million miles for our star’s surface.

The craft’s speed boost is thanks to its close passages of Venus, during which it got a “gravity assist” from the second planet from the sun. But, the Parker Solar probe’s mission isn’t just to set speed and distance records and then break them again.

On its latest passage, one of the craft’s primary science missions will be observing the properties of solar winds, streams of charged particles released from the upper atmosphere of the sun, also known as the corona.

One of the key aims of Parker, which launched in August 2018 and first reached the sun in January 2019, is to investigate a long-standing mystery surrounding the corona by flying through it.

One of the most curious things about our stars is the fact that the corona is hotter than its surface, or the photosphere, which exists 100 miles below it. Conventional logic suggests that the deeper into a star we probe the hotter it should become, so the reason why its outermost layers are hotter than its surface is a pressing concern and something that the Parker Solar Probe could unlock.

The craft has also made some other, unexpected discoveries. One this current flyby, it will be investigating why there are currently high levels of dust near the sun.

“What’s exciting about this is it’s greatly improving our understanding of the innermost regions of our heliosphere, giving us insight into an environment that, until now, was a total mystery,” said Nour Raouafi, a Parker Solar Probe project scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.

Even though the Parker Solar Probe doesn’t carry a dust detector, it can detect dust through the plasma created when dust grains pelt it at high velocities as it passes through space. The electrical charges that result from this are then detected by several sensors on the probe’s FIELDS instrument, designed to measure the electric and magnetic fields near the sun.

This helps it assess the characteristics of dust in a region of the solar system that no craft has ever before traversed during its record-breaking mission.

The records being set by the Parker Solar Probe may be broken again soon. In August 2023 and November 2024 the craft will make two further flybys of Venus to build its speed.

In December 2024, these speed boosts will result in the Parker Solar Probe passing the sun at a tremendous 430,000 miles hour. It will also come closer than ever before to the sun, passing within 4 miles of our star.

Parker Solar Probe
An illustration of the Parker Solar Probe as it circles the sun. The spacecraft, already the fastest object built will soon shatter its own speed record.
NASA



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