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Parker Solar Probe Set to Break the Solar System Speed Record Again!

NASA's Parker Solar Probe is about to reach its maximum speed of 430,000 miles per hour.

By Cassidy Ward
A conceptual image of the Parker Solar Probe in a stream of solar particles

SYFY’s The Ark features humanity’s last hope, a collection of deep space explorers on an interstellar spacecraft to another world. They were headed for Proxima centauri, a star about 4.2 light-years from here, where they hoped to set up a new Earth on a nearby exoplanet. The trip was supposed to take a year or so, which is shockingly fast for an interstellar commute.

How to Watch

Watch new episodes of The Ark Wednesdays at 10/9c on SYFY. Catch up on Season 1 on Peacock.

In the real world, getting to Proxima centauri using today’s chemical rockets would take something like 70,000 years, and that’s just getting to the nearest star. If we want to travel the cosmos on anything resembling a reasonable timeline, we’re going to need to break the space speed record a few times. Fortunately, we’re on track to set a new record in December 2024, thanks to NASA’s Parker Solar Probe.

The Parker Solar Probe is one of the most extreme spacecrafts ever built. It flies faster and closer to the Sun than anything else humanity has ever dreamed up. It’s already the fastest spacecraft in human history and it will get even faster and even closer to the Sun on December 24, 2024.

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe Is About to Get Another Speed Boost from Venus

Parker launched from Cape Canaveral on August 12, 2018. The 1,500-pound spacecraft was strapped to a Delta IV-Heavy rocket and blasted on a path toward the Sun. Its mission is to explore our star and improve our understanding of solar weather. Developing better solar weather prediction systems could protect humanity from the potentially catastrophic consequences of geomagnetic storms.

Over the course of nearly seven years, Parker has made several close passes of the planet Venus, using its gravity to shrink its orbit and draw closer to the Sun. The spacecraft made its first flyby of Venus in October 2018 and its first close pass of the Sun on November 5, 2018. At that time, it got within about 15 million miles from the Sun. In 2021, it became the first spacecraft to fly through the Sun’s upper atmosphere, the wispy corona seen during the recent total solar eclipse.

For More on the Sun:
What Were Those Weird Red Spots During the 2024 Solar Eclipse?
Enjoy Those Total Solar Eclipses While You Can, Because Someday They'll End Forever
Understanding the Sun's Solar Cycle and Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs)

On March 30, 2024, five-and-a-half-years and 18 solar passes later, Parker had narrowed its orbit considerably, getting within 4.51 million miles of the Sun’s surface. In the meantime, it picked up considerable speed, whipping through space at 394,736 miles (635,266 kilometers) per hour. Parker will repeat the maneuver at the same distance and speed twice more. Then, on November 6, 2024, it will make its final flyby of Venus. A month and a half later, on Christmas Eve, it will make the first of its final three close passes of the Sun.

Parker’s new orbit will push it as close as 3.8 million miles from the solar surface, reaching speeds of 430,000 miles (692,000 kilometers) per hour. At that speed, the Parker Solar Probe could circle the globe in under 3.5 minutes. It will pass by the Sun at the same altitude and speed two times after that, in March and June of 2025, after which its mission will end.

The space probe operates in a sweltering arena, and it survives only through some clever engineering. Parker’s sensitive instruments are protected behind a carbon-composite shield 4.5 inches thick. As long as the shield is oriented correctly, the spacecraft can handle temperatures of approximately 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,371 Celsius). Once Parker runs out of fuel it won’t be able to fight against pressure from the Sun, it will flip around and be incinerated. But some of it will survive.

“The carbon heat shield, the Faraday cup and some other parts should be able to survive those high temperatures. So what you’ll basically have is a sort of molten blob that will be in a ten-solar-radii orbit – for the next billion years or so,” said Justin Kasper, one of the mission’s principal investigators, in a statement.

And it will be the fastest molten blob in history.

Catch up with the crew of The Ark when they return for Season 2 this summer on Peacock.