A NASA Spacecraft Just Created a new Record for the Closest Approach to Sun

A NASA sun-studying spacecraft just made an entry into the record books.

Long back in April 1976, the German-American Helios 2 probe made spaceflight’s closest-ever solar approach by cruising within 26.55 million miles (i.e 42.73 million kilometers) of the sun. Now NASA’s Parker Solar Probe zoomed inside that distance today on October 29th, crossing the threshold at about 1:04 p.m. EDT (1704 GMT), a few agency officials said.

Helios 2 also set the mark back then for the fastest speed relative to the sun, at 153,454 mph (or 246,960 km/h). The Parker Solar Probe is expected to better that as well today, reaching much higher speeds at about 10:54 p.m. EDT (0254 GMT on Oct. 30), NASA officials said. It should be noted that NASA’s Juno Jupiter spacecraft currently holds the record for top speed relative to Earth; the probe reached 165,000 mph (i,e 265,000 km/h), during its arrival at the giant planet in July 2016.

These records will repeatedly fall over the course of the Parker Solar Probe’s $1.5 billion mission, which began on the 12th of August with a liftoff from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The spacecraft will also study the sun during 24 close flybys over the next 7 years, by getting closer and closer to our star with each encounter.

In 2025, the Parker Solar Probe’s final flyby, will bring the craft within a mere 3.83 million miles (i.e 6.16 million km) of the sun’s surface. And the sun’s powerful gravity will also eventually accelerate the probe to a top speed of approximately 430,000 mph (690,000 km/h), NASA officials confirmed.

The 1st of these two dozen close encounters is just around the corner. It officially begins on Wednesday (Oct. 31), with perihelion (the closest solar approach) coming on the night of the 5th of November.

Mission project manager Andy Driesman, from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, said in a statement that it has been just 78 days since Parker Solar Probe launched, and they have now come closer to our star than any other spacecraft in history. He added that it is a proud moment for the team, though they remain focused on the first solar encounter, which begins on the 31st of October.

The spacecraft sports a very special carbon-composite shield to protect itself and its instruments from immense heat and radiation during its close flybys.

Those instruments will carry out a variety of measurements during the encounters. The Parker Solar Probe’s observations will also help researchers better understand the sun’s structure, composition as well as its activity, NASA officials have said. The data could also help solve two long-standing solar mysteries . Firstly why the sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona, is so much hotter than its surface, and secondly what accelerates the charged particles of the solar wind to such high speeds.