UPDATE 11-6-18: Parker Solar Probe Breaks Record, Becomes Closest Spacecraft to Sun

Parker Solar Probe now holds the record for closest approach to the Sun by a human-made 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.

The previous record for closest solar approach was set by the German-American Helios 2 spacecraft in April 1976. As the Parker Solar Probe mission progresses, the spacecraft will repeatedly break its own records, with a final close approach of 3.83 million miles from the Sun’s surface expected in 2024.

“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. “It’s a proud moment for the team, though we remain focused on our first solar encounter, which begins on Oct. 31.”

Parker Solar Probe is also expected to break the record for fastest spacecraft traveling relative to the Sun on Oct. 29 at about 10:54 p.m. EDT. The current record for heliocentric speed is 153,454 miles per hour, set by Helios 2 in April 1976.

The Parker Solar Probe team periodically measures the spacecraft’s precise speed and position using NASA’s Deep Space Network, or DSN. The DSN sends a signal to the spacecraft, which then retransmits it back to the DSN, allowing the team to determine the spacecraft’s speed and position based on the timing and characteristics of the signal. Parker Solar Probe’s speed and position were calculated using DSN measurements made through Oct. 24, and the team used that information along with known orbital forces to calculate the spacecraft’s speed and position from that point on.

Parker Solar Probe will begin its first solar encounter on Oct. 31, continuing to fly closer and closer to the Sun’s surface until it reaches its first perihelion — the point closest to the Sun — at about 10:28 p.m. EST on Nov. 5. The spacecraft will face brutal heat and radiation conditions while providing humanity with unprecedentedly close-up observations of a star and helping us understand phenomena that have puzzled scientists for decades. These observations will add key knowledge to NASA’s efforts to understand the Sun, where changing conditions can propagate out into the solar system, affecting Earth and other worlds.

Banner image: Parker Solar Probe, shown in this animation, became the closest-ever spacecraft to the Sun on Oct. 29, 2018, when it passed within 26.55 million miles of the Sun’s surface. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL

UPDATED 11-6-18: 

Parker Solar Probe sets records during first encounter with the sun

Less than three months after its fiery departure from Cape Canaveral, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe flew within 15 million miles (24 million kilometers) of the sun Monday for the $1.5 billion mission’s first close-up solar encounter.

Flying in an autonomous mode out of contact with ground controllers, the solar probe was on a trajectory that reached its closest point to the sun at 10:28 p.m. EST Monday (0328 GMT Tuesday), according to NASA.

Parker Solar Probe is circling the sun in an elliptical loop that takes the spacecraft from perihelion — the closest point to the sun which it passed Monday — to a distant point between the orbits of Venus and Earth. The spacecraft’s perihelion Monday reached a position less than half the distance from the sun as Mercury.

“You’re going into an environment that’s completely unforgiving,” said Andy Driesman, Parker Solar Probe’s project manager at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which built and operates the spacecraft. “The temperatures that we are seeing on the spacecraft have not been seen by any other spacecraft ever before. The first perihelion we’re going into, we have very minimal contact. All we can get is a tone.”

The complete Update

What is that light on the mountain?

The green portion of the solar spectrum as it scans from red to violet.

During the last year or so we have been asked this question many times. We have been testing a special art installation called Sunstar, created by Liliane Lin and John Vallerga. It is on loan to Mount Wilson Observatory, and is now being presented as part of Pasadena’s AxS Festival: City as Wunderkammerer.

Sunstar, directable prism array.

10 days until the launch of ICON

The Ionospheric Connection Explorer! 🚀 ICON will study Earth’s dynamic interface to space. To get ready for the Oct. 26 launch, we’re counting down with 10 key things to know about the mission:

First up: 🔟-mile-per-hour sensitivity

Though ICON zooms around Earth at upwards of 14,000 miles per hour, its wind-measuring instrument MIGHTI can detect changes in wind speed smaller than 10 miles per hour. MIGHTI makes use of the Doppler effect — the same phenomenon that makes an ambulance siren change pitch as it passes you — and measures the tiny shifts in color caused by the motion of glowing gases in the upper atmosphere, which reveals their speed and direction.

Studying the Van Allen Belts 60 Years After America’s First Spacecraft

This early schematic of the Van Allen Belts’ structure was created after the first American satellite discovered their existence in 1958.
Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Historic image of Van Allen Belts courtesy of NASA’s Langley Research Center

Tick, tick, tick. The device — a Geiger counter strapped to a miniature tape recorder — was registering radiation levels a thousand times greater than anyone expected. As the instrument moved higher, more than 900 miles above the surface, the counts ceased. Scientists were baffled. It was early 1958, the United States had just launched its first spacecraft, and a new discipline of physics was about to be born.

Sixty years ago today, the United States launched its first satellite into space. Dubbed Explorer 1, the spacecraft followed just months after the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1 and 2 spacecraft commenced the Space Age. Data captured by the Geiger counter aboard Explorer 1 heralded the emergence of space physics and ushered in a new era of technology and communications.

Far above Earth’s atmosphere, the radiation picked up by the instrument aboard Explorer 1 wasn’t of Earthly origin. In fact, it was from a region scientists previously considered largely void of particles. Prior to launch, scientists expected to measure cosmic rays — high-energy particles primarily originating beyond the solar system — which they had previously studied with ground- and balloon-based instruments. But what they found far outpaced the levels of radiation that would be expected from cosmic rays alone.

60 Years Studying the Van Allen Belts

Courtesy of By Mara Johnson-Groh
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems updates ICON launch status

Four months after standing down launch operations of the ICON mission on their Pegasus rocket, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems is entering the home stretch for a realigned launch on 26 October 2018 at 04:05 EDT (0805 UTC) over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida.

This week, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems managers for both ICON and Pegasus sat down with NASASpaceflight’s Chris Gebhardt to discuss what happened back in June as well as the current status of both vehicles in the final weeks before launch.

What happened in June:
In June, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (NGIS) began the ferry flight of their Stargazer L-1011 aircraft – with the Pegasus rocket safely encapsulating ICON inside its payload fairing – across the Pacific Ocean from California to the Kwajalein Atoll, where the air-drop launch of ICON was set to occur.

During the first leg of this trip from California to Hawai’i, systems engineers aboard Stargazer noticed an off-nominal reading from one of Pegasus’ new Actuator Control Units.

“This is the first time that we’re using Northrop Grumman-designed Actuator Control Units,” stated Bryan Baldwin, Pegasus Program Manager, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, in an exclusive interview with NASASpaceflight.

The Mission Status

Written by Chris Gebhardt October 5, 2018 courtesy fo NASA SpaceFlight

Fall 2018 Milestones for Parker Solar Probe

An illustration of Parker Solar Probe passing Venus. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

Oct. 3, 2018 (about 4:45 a.m. EDT) — Parker Solar Probe performs its first Venus gravity assist. This maneuver — to be repeated six more times over the lifetime of the mission — will change Parker Solar Probe’s trajectory to take the spacecraft closer to the Sun.

Oct. 29, 2018 — Parker Solar Probe is expected to come within 27 million miles of the Sun. This is the record currently held by Helios 2, set in 1976.

Oct. 30, 2018 — Parker Solar Probe is expected to surpass a heliocentric speed of 153,454 miles per hour. This is the record for fastest spacecraft measured relative to the Sun, set by Helios 2 in 1976.

These speed and distance estimates could change after Parker Solar Probe performs its Venus gravity assist on Oct. 3.

Oct. 31 – Nov. 11, 2018 — Parker Solar Probe performs its first solar encounter. Throughout this period, the spacecraft will gather valuable science data. It will not be in contact with Earth because of the Sun’s interference and the orientation needed to keep the spacecraft’s heat shield between it and the Sun. The spacecraft is expected to reach its closest approach on Nov. 6. Like the distance and speed records, this estimate could change after the Venus gravity assist.

December 2018 — Parker Solar Probe will downlink the science data gathered during its first solar encounter.

You can keep up with Parker Solar Probe’s real-time speed and position online, with updates every hour. More mission milestones are also available.

Article Courtesy of NASA Sun Science

NASA’s ICON launch now targeted for Oct. 26

NASA and Northrop Grumman are now targeting Friday, Oct. 26, 2018, for the launch of the agency’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON. The spacecraft will launch aboard a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The launch window is 90 minutes starting at 4 a.m. EDT and ICON will be launching off the coast of Daytona at 39,000 ft. at a heading of 105.0 degrees. The launch was postponed from Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018, to allow time to address a quality issue with a vendor-supplied electrical connector on the launch vehicle, which has been resolved.
Photo Credit: NASA