NASA Record-Breaking Sun-Surfing Mission, Explained in Gifs
Concept art of Parker Solar Probe. Image: NASA


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NASA Record-Breaking Sun-Surfing Mission, Explained in Gifs

The Parker Solar Probe will travel faster than any human-made object, and will travel closer to the Sun than ever before.

Epic voyages to the Sun are a mainstay of ancient myths and science fiction thrillers, but NASA's Parker Solar Probe, scheduled for launch in the summer of 2018, will make daring solar odysseys a genuine reality.

Not only will the Parker probe venture seven times closer to the Sun than the previous record-holder, the 1976 NASA mission Helios 2, it will also become the fastest human-made object in history, traveling at 450,000 miles per hour.


Trailer for Parker solar probe mission. Video: JHU Applied Physics Laboratory/NASA/YouTube

The Parker mission, named for American solar astrophysicist Eugene Parker and formerly known as Solar Probe Plus, is being developed at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) in Laurel, Maryland. On Tuesday, JHUAPL posted a batch of animated videos outlining the key phases and maneuvers in the upcoming mission.

Read More: Humanity Will 'Touch the Sun' with the Fastest Spacecraft Ever Made

Scroll on for a gifable breakdown of how the swiftest and most daring Sun-kisser in history will surf the solar seas.

Assuming Parker successfully launches from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, the spacecraft will jettison its payload fairing in Earth orbit, as visualized above. Then, the probe and its third stage booster will part ways with the spent Delta IV Heavy rocket stages (below).

After the separation is complete, the final booster will fire, nudging Parker toward its ultimate orbital trajectory circling Venus and the Sun.

This will be followed by the deployment of the probe's solar array, which will provide most of the power for the mission, and will pump coolant through its panels during searing close passes with the Sun.

Once the probe is on its way, it will release a tail-like boom structure. Sensitive magnetic instruments are located at the tip, so that Parker's own magnetic field does not interfere with their readings of magnetic forces around the Sun.


Last but not least, the spacecraft FIELDS antennae, which will monitor electric and magnetic outputs from the Sun, will be activated.

The mission trajectory shows how the probe will pass through the Sun's fiery corona, where temperatures reach some 2,500 ℉ (1,377℃), and swing out into the freezing expanse of deep space, where temperatures drop to minus 200 ℉ (minus 129 ℃).

The probe is scheduled to pass by Venus seven times for gravity assists. "It's almost like we surf around the Sun like a surfer on a wave," Nicola Fox, Parker's project scientist, told me in an interview for a previous piece about the probe. "Surfers don't fall into the ocean as long as they're going fast enough. That's kind of what we do. We use successive flybys of Venus to slow us down a little bit, and take some energy off. So, we've got to gracefully step closer and closer into the Sun over seven steps."

The Parker Solar Probe is built to be a resilient trooper. Its heat shield and protective gear safeguard the onboard suite of instruments, which will study the solar wind and the Sun's magnetic fields, along with other oddities surrounding the giant thermonuclear reactor we orbit.

Correction: The original version of this article said that the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) is located in Baltimore, Maryland. It is actually in Laurel, Maryland. The article has been updated.

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