Spacecraft skims near solar surface

 A spacecraft launched by NASA has successfully entered the corona of the Sun — an extreme environment that’s roughly 2 million degrees Fahrenheit — a feat that was once thought impossible.

Blazing along at space-record speeds that would get it from Earth to the Moon in under an hour, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has since completed its 10th close approach to the Sun on Nov. 21, coming within 5.3 million miles of the solar surface.

The Parker Solar Probe will continue its planned journey with 14 more science-gathering solar encounters as it makes 24 progressively closer loops around the Sun.

Parker Solar Probe is in the 10th of 24 planned, progressively closer orbits around the Sun. the spacecraft, built and operated at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, launched on Aug. 12, 2018. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

The close approach (known as perihelion), also at a record distance, occurred at 4:25 a.m. EST (8:25 UTC), with Parker Solar Probe moving 364,660 miles per hour (586,864 kilometers per hour). The milestone also marked the midway point in the mission’s 10th solar encounter, which began Nov. 16 and continues through Nov. 26.

The spacecraft entered the encounter in good health, with all systems operating normally. Parker Solar Probe is scheduled to check back in with mission operators at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland – where it was also designed and built – on Nov 24.

The spacecraft will transmit science data from the encounter – largely covering the properties and structure of the solar wind as well as the dust environment near the Sun – back to Earth from Dec. 23-Jan. 9.

“The sun is a little less than 5 billion years old,” said Paola Testa, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics, a collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and Harvard College Observatory. “It’s a kind of middle-age star, in the sense that its life is going to be of the order of 10 billion years or so.”

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