JHU APL's mission to 'touch the Sun' is heating up - Technical.ly Baltimore

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Nov. 5, 2018 6:17 pm

JHU APL’s mission to ‘touch the Sun’ is heating up

After breaking records, the Parker Solar Probe is heading for its closest solar approach yet.

The Parker Solar Probe, getting warmer (much warmer).

(Artist rendering courtesy of JHU APL)

On a mission to “touch the Sun,” a spacecraft built by engineers at Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Lab and Whiting School of Engineering is getting hotter.

The Parker Solar Probe launched over the summer on a mission that will take it about 90 million miles. The goal is to gather scientific data about space weather, solar wind and why the corona – or aura around the star – is hotter than the surface.

According to the JHU Hub, the probe is making its closest approach to the Sun yet on Monday night around 10:28 p.m. That’s when the probe reaches a point in its orbit when it is closest to our star, called a perihelion. It’ll be within 15 million miles of the surface. To stave off rays that can reach 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s equipped with a heat shield.

The APL-operated systems aboard the unmanned probe are autonomous, but there’s no shortage of drama. Tonight’s operation will include a period of time when the probe is out of contact with the team in Laurel due to radio interference.

“You can’t do Parker Solar Probe unless you’re willing to build an autonomous spacecraft that can take care of itself … and all these [systems] contain some level of risk,” Andrew Driesman, project manager for Parker Solar Probe, told the Hub. “We’re going to go closer to the sun than any other spacecraft has gone before, and we’re not going to do that once, we’re not going to that twice, we’re going to do that 24 times. And that is terrifying.”

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The probe is already breaking records. Last week, JHU APL reported the following marks, which are continuously being set as it gets closer:

  • Closest spacecraft to the Sun (26.55 million miles)
  • Fastest human-made object, relative to the Sun. (153,454 miles per hour)

The final close approach is expected in 2024. At that point, the probe will be 3.83 million miles from the surface of the Sun.

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