After decades of scientific brainstorming and years of construction, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is safely on its way to flying seven times closer to the sun than any mission has before.
Now that the spacecraft is finally off the ground, it won’t be long before scientists can start digging into its data — and that data will keep coming for seven years.
“There’s definitely a coiled-spring feeling,” project scientist Nicola Fox, a solar scientist at Johns Hopkins University, told Space.com earlier this week, before the launch. “We’re just ready for her to leave this planet.”
And now, the spacecraft has finally left Earth. Here’s where the journey will take it.
The $1.5 billion Parker Solar Probe needed a ton of speed to escape Earth’s orbit, hence the total of three rocket stages that fired during the launch.
That will carry it to the neighborhood of Venus in just six weeks, arriving by late September.
On Sept. 28, the spacecraft will need to pull off a careful maneuver designed to gently slow it down and begin its calculated dance with the sun.
That maneuver, called a gravity assist, will pass a little of the spacecraft’s acceleration to the planet and edge the probe a little closer to the sun.
The Parker Solar Probe will then begin its first of 24 orbits around the sun, with its first close approach, or perihelion, coming on Nov. 1.
Each orbit will be petal-shaped, skimming over the sun closely and then flying out farther into space to close out the orbit.
The bulk of the probe’s science work will come when it is within a quarter of the distance between Earth and the sun — although the team is hoping that the instruments can be turned on for as much of the mission as possible.
The early orbits, while remaining farther away from the sun, will be special because the spacecraft will spend its time close to the sun in essentially the equivalent of geosynchronous orbit, hovering over the same region.
“Not a lot of people appreciate how entertaining these periods are going to be,” Justin Kasper, a physicist at the University of Michigan and principal investigator for one of the probe’s instruments said.
During these periods, which scientists call fast radial scans, the spacecraft will swoop in at a speed that closely matches the sun’s speed of rotation, and then swoop out again.
While the spacecraft keeps pace with the sun’s rotation, it will be able to watch how the same region of the sun behaves over a period of about 10 days.
That means there’s plenty of science to look forward to years before the spacecraft completes its closest approach to the sun near the end of the mission.
“It might take us five years to get to our closest orbit, but we should have some amazing insights into our sun just this winter,” Kasper said.
“We’re going to have some amazing observations this November with that first perihelion.”
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