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Solar probe gets closer to the Sun by going faster

Sean Keach, May 12, 2021 6:30PM The Sun

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NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has just broken its own record for fastest man-made object in history as part of its mission to get closer to the Sun. Picture: AFP Photo/NASA/Johns Hopkins APL media_cameraNASA’s Parker Solar Probe has just broken its own record for fastest man-made object in history as part of its mission to get closer to the Sun. Picture: AFP Photo/NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

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A rugged* NASA probe has soared across space and ‘touched the Sun’ in a truly astronomical feat.

The 482,781 km per hour Parker Solar Probe will get even closer – and is already officially the fastest man-made object ever created.

In truth, there are many different ways to ‘touch’ the Sun; the star is multi-layered and its effects extend far from the core.

In this case, the probe has glanced* the Sun’s toasty outer atmosphere.

It got as close as around 9,656,064 km from Earth’s host star – but that’s not the only record.

The probe has also become the fastest man-made object, travelling at a mind-blowing 532,000 km per hour.

That breaks its own record set in February 2020, when the probe achieved speeds of 393,044 km per hour.

media_cameraEngineers examine the Parker Solar Probe at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in 2018. Car-sized and protected by a very thick heat shield, the probe travels closer to the Sun than any spacecraft in history. Picture: Jim Watson/AFP.

The speed is brain-boggling: the probe could circumnavigate* Earth in under five minutes and reach the Moon in less than an hour.

NASA’s probe is using an orbit that takes it around Venus, using the planet’s gravity to bring it ever closer to the Sun.

With each pass, the probe’s total speed is ramping up.

NASA’s hardy craft will eventually approach as close as 6.9 million kilometres.

And it will ultimately reach speeds of up to 692,2018 km per hour – around 0.064 per cent the speed of light.

During the trip, the probe endures temperatures of 1,300C.

The Parker Solar Probe is one of NASA’s most exciting missions.

It launched back in 2018 to observe the outer corona* of the Sun – from a closer viewpoint than any previous probe.

NASA has tracked eight passes around the Sun of a planned 24 trips.

The mission is due to end in 2025, but could be extended if NASA chooses.

Eventually, it’s possible that the probe will slowly spiral into the Sun, ultimately destroying the craft.

media_cameraThis NASA photo from 2017 shows several bright bands of plasma on the Sun connecting one active region to another. Even though they are tens of thousands of kilometres away from each other, these connecting lines are clearly visible in this wavelength of extreme ultraviolet light. The Parker Solar Probe become the first craft to fly directly into the Sun’s atmosphere the following year. Picture: AFP Photo/NASA/GSFC/Solar Dynamics Observatory”

Sun Facts

  • The Sun is a huge star that lives at the centre of our solar system
  • It’s a near-perfect sphere of hot plasma* and provides most of the energy for life on Earth
  • It measures a staggering 1,392,083 kilometres across – making it 109 times bigger than Earth
  • But its weight is 330,000 times that of Earth, and accounts for almost all of the mass in the Solar System
  • The Sun is mostly made up of hydrogen (73 per cent), helium (25 per cent) and a number of other elements like oxygen, carbon and iron
  • Its surface temperature is around 5,505C
  • Scientists describe the Sun as being “middle-aged”
  • The Sun formed 4.6 billion years ago, and has been in its current state for around four billion years
  • It’s expected that it will remain stable for another five billion years
  • It doesn’t have enough mass to explode as a supernova*
  • Instead, it is expected to turn a huge red giant*
  • During the red giant phase, it will be so big that it will engulf* Mercury, Venus and Earth
  • Eventually it will turn into an incredibly hot white dwarf* – and will stay that way for trillions of years

This story was first published on The Sun and is republished with permission.

GLOSSARY

  • rugged: tough
  • glanced: touched
  • circumnavigate: travel all the way around something
  • corona: the outer layer of the sun and other stars
  • plasma: an ionised gas, in the case of stars at very high temperatures
  • supernova: a star that becomes much brighter after exploding
  • red giant: a luminous star with a large radius but low mass, late in its life
  • engulf: surround, swallow
  • hot white dwarf: what stars become once they have used up their nuclear fuel

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QUICK QUIZ

  1. How close was the probe to the Sun in this latest mission?
  2. What was the probe’s record-breaking speed?
  3. How long would it take the probe to circumnavigate the Earth?
  4. When is the mission due to end?
  5. How many times bigger than Earth is the Sun?

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Choose 5 facts from this news story that you think are the most important or interesting. Create an infographic that incorporates images and these facts. Your infographic should enable a viewer who only has one minute to look at it, to come away with a basic knowledge of what the story was about.

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The Parker Solar Probe has so far travelled at a top speed of 532,000 kms per hour. What does this equate to per minute? What about per second?

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