Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan


Parker Solar Probe breaks two world records on its way to the Sun

Posted: November 5, 2018

Parker Solar Probe breaks two world records on its way to the Sun


Parker Solar Probe broke two longstanding spaceflight world records last week. 

After a swing by the planet Venus, the spacecraft embarked on its first solar encounter, accelerating as it falls closer to the Sun. The Probe now holds the record for closest approach to the Sun by a human-built object. The spacecraft passed the current record of 26.55 million miles from the Sun's surface on Oct. 29, 2018, at about 1:04 p.m. EDT, as calculated by the Parker Solar Probe team. Parker Solar Probe also broke the record for fastest spacecraft traveling relative to the Sun (153,454 miles per hour) at about 10:54 p.m. EDT later that day. Both previous records were set by the Helios 2 spacecraft in April, 1976. ‚Äč

Climate & Space Assoc. Professor Justin Kasper gave this analogy:

"By November 1st, as the spacecraft keeps falling closer to the Sun and continues speeding up, the probe was moving 84 kilometers per second, or nearly 190,000 miles an hour. The kinetic energy of the spacecraft at this speed is greater than one trillion joules, but what does such a large number even mean? If we took the mass of the Queen Mary II, one of the largest passenger ships ever built, and its maximum speed of about 35 mph, we find that Parker Solar Probe has the energy of 100 Queen Marys, all moving at their top speed. It will continue to fly closer and closer to the Sun until it reaches its first perihelion (the point closest to the Sun) tonight at about 10:28 p.m. EST."

Professor Kasper is principal investigator for the spacecraft's Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons (SWEAP) investigation. 

Parker Solar Probe will encounter extremes of heat and radiation in order to provide us with unprecedented close-up observations of our star, and new data on solar activity and phenomena. These observations are critical in helping further our understanding of the Sun and its effects on the Solar System, as well as our ability to forecast major space-weather events that impact life on Earth

In 2017, the mission was renamed for Eugene Parker, the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus, Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago. In the 1950s, Parker proposed a number of concepts about how stars—including our Sun—give off energy. He called this cascade of energy the solar wind, and he described an entire complex system of plasmas, magnetic fields, and energetic particles that make up this phenomenon. Parker also theorized an explanation for the superheated solar atmosphere, the corona, which is – contrary to what was expected by physics laws -- hotter than the surface of the sun itself. This is the first NASA mission that has been named for a living individual.