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NASA’s Parker Solar Probe completes its first trip around the sun

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe completes its first trip around the sun
A United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket launches NASA’s Parker Solar Probe on a mission to touch the Sun, on Sunday, Aug. 12, 2018 from Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. [Photo: courtesy of Bill Ingalls/NASA]

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has completed its first orbit of the sun, but instead of kicking back to celebrate its groundbreaking revolution, it started the whole thing over again.

The spacecraft, which took off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida just 161 days ago, is now on its second of 24 planned orbits around the sun. While it makes the trip, the spacecraft’s instruments are helping scientists unravel the sun’s mysteries, such as, according to NASA, “how particles and solar material are accelerated out into space at such high speeds and why the sun’s atmosphere, the corona, is so much hotter than the surface below.”

The spacecraft has already delivered a whopping 17 gigabits of data gathered during its first orbit, NASA officials said, and the data nerds are expecting to get the full download from the probe’s orbit by April. “We’ve always said that we don’t know what to expect until we look at the data,” said project scientist Nour Raouafi of the Applied Physics Lab in Maryland, which built and manages the project. “The data we have received hints at many new things that we’ve not seen before and at potential new discoveries. Parker Solar Probe is delivering on the mission’s promise of revealing the mysteries of our sun.”

Before the probe can reveal the sun’s mysteries, though, the probe has to survive its second perihelion, the name given to the spacecraft’s closest approach to the sun. That will put the probe about 15 million miles from the sun, which is way closer than the previous sun flyby record of about 27 million miles set by Helios 2 in 1976. The probe will hit perihelion around April 4, 2019.

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