That didn’t take long. After launching just two months ago, a NASA probe has become the closest human-made object ever to the Sun – and it has also become the fastest spacecraft of all time.
The Parker Solar Probe was launched on August 12, 2018 on a mission to study the Sun like never before. The spacecraft will eventually enter an extremely close orbit around the Sun, one that sees it swoop to 8.5 times the Sun’s radius from the solar surface.
That will take seven years to achieve, making use of multiple Venus flybys to get the spacecraft in position. But NASA announced yesterday that the spacecraft had already made the closest to approach to the Sun of any spacecraft in history, breaking a record that has stood for more than four decades.
Yesterday on October 29, the spacecraft reached a distance of 42.73 million kilometers (26.55 million miles) from the Sun’s surface. This sets a previous record held by the German-American Helios 2 spacecraft, which reached a minimum distance of 43.432 million kilometers (26.987 million miles) from the Sun on April 17, 1976.
“It’s been just 78 days since Parker Solar Probe launched, and we’ve now come closer to our star than any other spacecraft in history,” said Project Manager Andy Driesman from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland in a statement. “It’s a proud moment for the team.”
The spacecraft is also thought to have broken the record for the fastest spacecraft relative to the Sun last night. That was also held by Helios 2, traveling at 246,960 kilometers per hour (153,454 miles per hour) in April 2016. The Parker Solar Probe reached 248,228 kilometers per hour (154,242 miles per hour) yesterday, or 0.00023 times the speed of light.
And the fun doesn’t stop there. Tomorrow, October 31, the spacecraft is set to begin its first solar encounter, beginning the science phase of the mission as the spacecraft swoops around the Sun. It will make its first close pass to the Sun on November 5, facing “brutal heat and radiation conditions,” noted NASA.
The spacecraft is laden with a suite of instruments to study the Sun, hidden behind a heat shield to protect them from the star's intense heat. Ultimately in 2024, the spacecraft will reach its closest point to the Sun, a distance of just 6.16 million kilometers (3.83 million miles).
It’s pretty impressive that the Helios 2 record stood for so long, though. Now we’ve got a new record-breaking spacecraft, and its mission has only just begun.