The Sun is the most influential body in the solar system, a crucial driver of life on Earth, and an incredibly challenging object to actually explore up close. The famous myth of Icarus casts flying too close to the Sun as a metaphorical act of perilous hubris, but it’s also literally difficult to send spacecraft to the region surrounding our star due to its intense radiation and energy.
That’s what makes NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which launched in 2018, such a special and pioneering mission. Over the past few years in space, Parker has traveled closer to the Sun than any previous spacecraft, while also breaking the record for the fastest object of all time.
Adam Szabo, mission scientist for Parker at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, noted that the agency’s goal of exploring the Sun dates all the way back to 1958, the same year NASA was formally founded.
“We are really excited that finally we’ve reached the capability, in the United States, that we can put together such a mission to get as close to the Sun as possible,” Szabo said in a Motherboard interview that included Betsy Congdon, lead thermal protection system engineer for Parker at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
The spacecraft can withstand conditions within the outer atmosphere of the Sun, called the corona, and it will eventually travel just 4.3 million miles from the star’s center—seven times closer than any previous mission.
“One way to think about it is, if you put [Parker] on a football field with the Sun at one side and Earth at the other side, we’re getting in the four-yard line,” said Congdon. “We’re getting in the Sun’s corona, so it’s very exciting.”
Parker is able to push these solar limits thanks to its sophisticated heat shield, which converts temperatures of 2,500°F on the Sun-face to a comfortable room temperature on the probe’s shaded instrumentation side. The spacecraft is also equipped with solar panels that have cooling systems so that they can endure the difficult conditions around the Sun while also providing long-term power to the mission.
As Parker continues to swing past the Sun in its close approaches, it will eventually reach an astonishing top speed of 430,000 miles per hour, fast enough to travel from New York to Los Angeles in about 20 seconds.
The mission has already made interesting discoveries about the Sun during its passes, spotting curious dust rings and “magnetic islands” at the star. Eventually, the probe will shed light on the mysterious mechanism behind the Sun’s solar wind, and the unexpectedly high temperature in the corona, compared to the solar surface. By studying the Sun up close, Parker will also yield insights about other star systems, including their potential habitability.
“The Sun is our star and the one that’s closest to us, so as we understand it, we will understand many other stars,” Congdon said. “That’s really exciting and will change our view not only of our Sun, but of all stars.”