While you were recovering from that Christmas hangover, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe successfully completed its second flyby of Venus.
On Thursday, Dec. 26, the spacecraft approached the planet at a distance of about 1,870 miles during the second gravity assist of the mission.
The probe, named after physicist Eugene Parker, launched in August 2018; it features a memory card containing photos of Parker and a copy of his 1958 scientific paper predicting important aspects of solar physics.
In October 2018, it passed within 26.55 million miles of the Sun’s surface, beating the previous achievement set by the German-American Helios 2 more than four decades ago.
Expect a lot more broken records as the Parker Solar Probe mission continues, prepared to make a final close approach of 3.83 million miles from the Sun’s surface in 2024.
This autumn, the robotic spacecraft aced its third solar flyby, soaring some 15 million miles from our local star.
On a carefully choreographed trajectory through the cosmos, the satellite is already passing Earth’s twin planet. Frankly, according to Venus scientists, it would be silly not to make a pit stop.
“The Venus flybys are like, if you have like a 48-hour layover in Paris, not leaving the airport,” Shannon Curry, a planetary physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, told Space.com. “It would be crazy not to turn on [the instruments].”
NASA agreed, sending the Parker Solar Probe this week for its second visit to Earth’s twin.
As the probe’s name suggests, its instruments are designed to study a star, not a planet: They focus mostly on plasma, the highly ionized gas that comprises the Sun.
That doesn’t mean they can’t collect and return vital information, though.
Curry & Co. are particularly interested in data on a feature called the bow shock, described by Space.com as “where [Venus’s] neighborhood meets the solar wind of charged particles” streaming off the Sun.
Moving forward, researchers are hoping to learn more about the planet’s atmospheric-loss measurements during the probe’s next two flybys—scheduled for July 2020 and February 2021.
During Parker Solar Probe’s first Venus flyby in late 2018, the spacecraft, convinced it was pointing straight at the Sun, shut its instruments down as a protective measure.
The project team believes it has fixed that loophole.
They will use the data collected during this week’s flyby to make adjustments for the remaining five Venus gravity assists, scheduled over the course of the probe’s seven-year mission.
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- NASA to Fund ‘Innovative’ Self-Healing Spacesuits, Venus Landers