A couple of days before Michigan State University’s men’s basketball team sets out to make a little history, a NASA spacecraft named for an MSU graduate made another record-setting flyby of our solar system’s sun.
The U.S. space agency reports that the Parker Solar Probe made perihelion — its closest approach to the sun — at about 6:40 p.m. Thursday evening, April 4. While 15 million miles doesn’t exactly sound like the correct definition of “close approach,” the space agency points out that this ties the closest approach of the sun by a spacecraft ever (also set by the Parker Solar Probe).
During this flyby, NASA says that the solar probe was moving at about 213,200 mph.
The probe is named for astrophysicist Eugene Parker, which represents the first time the space agency has named one of its spacecrafts for a living person. Parker received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Michigan State University before getting his doctorate at Caltech.
The spacecraft’s namesake studied and proposed concepts of how stars and our sun give off energy in what he called “the solar wind.”
“The spacecraft is performing as designed, and it was great to be able to track it during this entire perihelion,” Nickalaus Pinkine, mission operations manager at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, said in a news release.
“We’re looking forward to getting the science data down from this encounter in the coming weeks so the science teams can continue to explore the mysteries of the corona and the Sun.”
During its closest approaches to the sun, the probe will come within 15 million miles of the sun. The previous closest approach to the giant star was in 1976 when the Helios 2 came within 27 million miles.
While its second closest approach is complete, the space agency says this encounter with our solar system’s star will officially wrap up April 10.
In these close approaches, the Parker Solar Probe will face “heat and radiation unlike any spacecraft in history.” To help it face these conditions on its journey, NASA installed a “cutting-edge heat shield” that is made of two panels of superheated carbon-carbon composite sandwiching a 4.5-inch thick carbon foam core.
The spacecraft launched back in August from Cape Canaveral as it set out to gather new data regarding its solar activity that could “help our ability to forecast major space-weather events that impact life on Earth.”
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has 24 planned orbits of the sun as part of its mission studying the giant star.
“Parker Solar Probe is providing us with the measurements essential to understanding solar phenomena that have been puzzling us for decades,” Nour Raouafi, a project scientist on the mission.
“To close the link, local sampling of the solar corona and the young solar wind is needed and Parker Solar Probe is doing just that.”