The spacecraft is putting the "sun" in "Sunday."

The Parker Solar Probe is making its 14th close flyby of the sun as part of its ongoing quest to unlock the mysteries of our star.

The NASA spacecraft will pass the sun’s surface, also known as the photosphere, at a distance of around 5.3 million miles (8.5 million kilometers) on Sunday (Dec. 11), braving intense radiation and extreme heat to collect data regarding the star’s outer atmosphere, the corona. The exact time of the closest approach to the sun, or perihelion, will be around 8:16 a.m. EST (1316 GMT), when the spacecraft will be traveling at an incredible speed of around 364,639 mph (586,829 kph).

Amazingly, this speed, 200 times faster than a bullet fired by a rifle, isn’t the record velocity for the craft. On Nov. 21, 2021, the Parker Solar Probe achieved a slightly higher speed of 364,621 mph (586,000 kph) during its 10th solar flyby, becoming the fastest spacecraft ever built, although it will break that record later in its mission.

The Dec. 11 perihelion won’t be the closest for the Parker Solar Probe, which launched aboard a Delta IV-Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, in August 2018. During coming flybys, the spacecraft will advance on the sun, eventually passing as close as 3.8 million miles (6,115500 km) from our star’s surface. Seven times closer to the sun than any previous craft and almost 10 times closer to the sun than the innermost planet, Mercury, this will see the Parker Solar Probe encounter temperatures as great as 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,400 degrees Celsius).

To withstand these extreme conditions, the spacecraft is equipped with a 4.5-inch-thick (11.43 centimeters) carbon-composite shield that keeps its scientific payload at room temperature. 

One of the Parker Solar Probe’s primary objectives is to study the corona, the outermost layer of the sun’s atmosphere, collecting data that could help solve one of the most long-standing mysteries regarding the sun: Why is its atmosphere hotter than its surface?

Theories of stellar physics suggest that deeper into the plasma of a star, the pressure increases and the star becomes hotter. The corona defies this wisdom, however. Despite being wispy and diffuse, the plasma in this layer is hotter than the plasma at the sun’s surface, the photosphere that lies beneath the corona. Temperatures at the corona spike to 2 million F (1.1 million C) and higher, despite the fact that 1,000 miles (1,600 km) below it, the photosphere is 10 million times denser and reaches temperatures of just 10,000 F (5,500 C).

The corona is difficult to study from Earth because the light it emits is washed out by the much brighter light from the photosphere, meaning the corona is only visible during a total solar eclipse, when the moon blocks light from the photosphere. (Scientists can also use special tools to replicate the effect.)

Hence the need for the Parker Solar Probe to get “up close and personal” with our star in order to better understand the corona, which is also responsible for launching the solar wind, a stream of charged particles that can interfere with communication and power infrastructure here on Earth.

Because the sun is the only star close enough to study in this way, learning more about it will also help scientists understand stellar bodies much further afield. 

The Parker Solar Probe will make its next and 15th close approach to the sun on March 17, 2023, also reaching around 5.3 million miles (8.5 million km) above the sun’s surface. Later in the year, the spacecraft will swing past Venus to adjust its trajectory closer to the sun as the mission approaches its conclusion in 2025.

Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.


Power on the Moon. What Will it Take to Survive the Lunar Night?

With the help of international and commercial partners, NASA is sending astronauts back to the Moon for the first time in over fifty years. In addition to sending crewed missions to the lunar surface, the long-term objective of the Artemis Program is to create the necessary infrastructure for a ...

View more: Power on the Moon. What Will it Take to Survive the Lunar Night?

Iwan Rhys Morus

Iwan Rhys Morus holds PhDs in the history and philosophy of science from the University of Cambridge. He has spent much of his career working on the history of science during the nineteenth century, including the development of new electrical technologies, the popular culture of science, and the history ...

View more: Iwan Rhys Morus

How do lie detectors work?

This article was first published on Big Think in October 2020. It was updated in December 2022. We all lie. Some might argue it’s human nature. In a 2002 study, 60% of people were found to lie at least once during a 10-minute conversation, with most people telling an ...

View more: How do lie detectors work?

How electricity stormed past steam and became the power of the future

Excerpted from HOW THE VICTORIANS TOOK US TO THE MOON, written by Dr. Iwan Rhys Morus and published by Pegasus Books. None of this happened by accident – and none of it happened as the result of acts of individual genius either. The business of electrification was a business, ...

View more: How electricity stormed past steam and became the power of the future

What is the true nature of our quantum reality?

When it comes to understanding the Universe, scientists have traditionally taken two approaches in tandem with one another. On the one hand, we perform experiments and make measurements and observations of what the results are; we obtain a suite of data. On the other hand, we construct theories and ...

View more: What is the true nature of our quantum reality?

Planetary Interiors in TRAPPIST-1 System Could be Affected by Solar Flares

In a recent study published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, an international team of researchers led by the University of Cologne in Germany examined how solar flares erupted by the TRAPPIST-1 star could affect the interior heating of its orbiting exoplanets. This study holds the potential to help us ...

View more: Planetary Interiors in TRAPPIST-1 System Could be Affected by Solar Flares

SpaceX’s last Starlink launch of 2022 is a bit of a mystery

In a strange twist, SpaceX says that its next Starlink mission will launch 54 satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO), implying that they’re roughly the same size as the V1.5 satellites it’s already launching – not the larger V2 or V2 Mini satellites hinted in recent FCC filings. However, ...

View more: SpaceX’s last Starlink launch of 2022 is a bit of a mystery

Is Mining in Space Socially Acceptable?

Traditional mining has been subject to a negative stigma for some time. People, especially in developed countries, have a relatively negative view of this necessary economic activity. Primarily that is due to its environmental impacts – greenhouse gas emissions and habitat destruction are some of the effects that give ...

View more: Is Mining in Space Socially Acceptable?

“Mad honey”: The rare hallucinogen from the mountains of Nepal

Fred Hogge

The history of ice, one of the first luxuries

Astronomy 2023: Top Sky Watching Highlights for the Coming Year

Are humans wired for conflict? Charles Darwin vs. "Lord of the Flies" - Big Think

What was the biggest explosion in the Universe?

Canada takes boldest stance on electric vehicles yet

Despite the low air Pressure, Wind Turbines Might Actually Work on Mars

NASA Makes Asteroid Defense a Priority, Moving its NEO Surveyor Mission Into the Development Phase

Lightweight Picogram-Scale Probes Could be the Best way to Explore Other Star Systems

World’s biggest cultivated meat factory is being built in the U.S.

Ndidi Akahara


Top Car News Car News