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NASA’s mission to ‘Touch the Sun’ just reached a major milestone

Published Jan 30th, 2019 10:58AM EST
parker probe
Image: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

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NASA had a big year in 2018 with several bold new missions to study various features of our Solar System, and one of the most exciting was the launch of the Parker Solar Probe which will study the Sun in more detail than has ever been possible before. The probe has already broken several records and proven that it’s capable of enduring the intensity of our star, and it’s starting out 2019 by adding another notch to its belt.

The probe, which launched in August of last year, recently completed its first full orbit of the Sun on January 19th. It’s a feat that the spacecraft will repeat many times over the next several years, but completing the first full loop is obviously cause for celebration.

“It’s been an illuminating and fascinating first orbit,” Parker Solar Probe Project Manager Andy Driesman said in a statement. “We’ve learned a lot about how the spacecraft operates and reacts to the solar environment, and I’m proud to say the team’s projections have been very accurate.”

The probe gathered a huge amount of data during its first trip around the Sun, and it performed much of its work without being in radio contact of its handlers back on Earth. As it orbits the Sun, the probe will regularly lose contact with Earth and then reconnect when it emerges from behind the star once more.

Thus far, the probe has sent back over 17 gigs of scientific data and it’s still streaming more observation data back. The data dump won’t be finished until April, NASA says.

The probe is expected to put in nearly seven years of work, making a total of 24 orbits and getting gradually closer to the Sun with each pass. It is tasked with observing many different functions of the star, including the generation of solar wind and the outflow of energy from the Sun into space, advancing our understanding of solar weather.