Parker Solar Probe smashes record for closest approach to Sun

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The $1.5 billion mission began on August 12, and the spacecraft will spent the next seven years studying the sun at closer and closer distances, enduring extreme heat and radiation.

The probe surpassed the previous record of 26.55 million miles from the star's surface on Monday October 29 at around 1:04 pm ET.

It also emerged on Monday that the mission set the speed record for spacecraft traveling relative to the Sun, surpassing 153,454 miles per hour (shy of 247,000 km/h) and breaking the record set by Helios 2 back in 1976. After that, the probe will burn up in the sunlight.

Data collected by the Parker Solar Probe, NASA said, will add "key knowledge" to the agency's understanding of our Sun, "where changing conditions can propagate out into the Solar System, affecting Earth and other worlds". "We are proud of this event, although we continue to focus on our first solar meeting, which starts on 31 October", says project Manager Andy Driesman.

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The previous record was held by the Helios 2 craft, which was launched from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force station in 1976. The sun's gravity will eventually see the probe reach speeds of about 430,000mph.

During its 7-year mission, the probe will complete 24 orbits of the Sun, coming within 3.8 million miles of its surface, and dip into the corona, the plasmic aura that is even hotter than the surface. Now it is preparing to encounter the Sun on Wednesday, 31 October. That mission also set a speed record of nearly 70km/s (43 miles/s), and Parker will also break that record in the next years.

Over time its orbit around the Sun will become shorter, but also more elliptical, meaning that the probe will be travelling progressively faster at perihelion (the closest point to the Sun) and slower at aphelion (furthest point from the Sun).

To face the heat of almost 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, the spacecraft is well protected by a special 4.5-inch thick carbon-composite shield.

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