Geeking Science: Mirror Mirror, who is the fastest of them all

NASA – John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory Patch for the Parker Solar Probe

Back in 2017 I wrote about how Fast things can go in space in a Geeking Science: Fast, Faster, Fastest (5/18/2017), and discussed the expectation of the Parker Solar Probe expected to be the fastest man-made thing Out There – maybe hitting 0.0671% the speed of light. I figured it is time to check in on the results; it has been six years … six very long years here on Earth.

The PSP launched on August 12, 2018, with its first close swingby the sun on November 5 of the same year. Since then it’s been flying an oval between the Sun and Venus’ orbit has been using Vensus’ gravity, when it is in that part of space at the same time as the probe, each lap to aim the probe closer and closer to the sun during the perihelion turn. “A Mission to Touch the Sun” isn’t just a slogan. They are using the probe to explore the sun’s corona, taking measurements and imagery. One part so scientists and meteorologists can better predict solar storms affecting technology on earth, one part to better understand solar wind as humanity continues to develop solar sail technology, and a whole bunch of other parts, because nearest star!

PSP has completed seventeen flybys and will accomplish the eighteenth on December 29, just before the new year flips. Each sling shot around the sun picks up speed – with the adjusted top speed (now that it has been running for a while) to be be hit sometime in 2025 to be 0.0641% of the speed of light. A little slower than originally hoped but still super fast at 430,000 miles per hour.

Each sling shot around Venus (only seven due to the Evening Star planet moving through its orbit), tightens the orbit to bring it closer to the sun’s atmosphere. The downside is the Venus gravity corrections do slow the probe down. With its most recent pass of the sun (the 17th), the probe hit 394,736 mph – or 0.0589% the speed of light. The fastest thing that humanity has ever put up there.

When will another man-made creation break this record? Don’t know.

But humanity will need to do so, because visiting other stars needs to be faster than this. At the top speed of 0.0641%, if somehow we made it instantaneous and constant, from here to Proxima Centauri would take over seven thousand years … even to reach Eris, a dwarf planet in the Orts cloud, 13 light hours from Earth, would take over two  and a half years. The real tech available now, without the constant orbits dropping into the Sol’s gravity field, is more like ten times that at twenty-five years.

Still the achievement of fastest is amazing. And the study of the star of the solar system is crucial. If Cosmic-Ray energy or heliosphere perimeters excite you, be sure to check out the PSP website “publication” section. Many of the papers drawing from the data collected by this can-do hot-stuff probe are available there.

Bibliography

Website: https://parkersolarprobe.jhuapl.edu/The-Mission/ – last viewed 11/16/2023

“For the Record: Parker Solar Probe Sets Distance, Speed Marks on 17th Swing by the Sun.” Nasa Parker Solar Probe. 28 September 2023. (https://parkersolarprobe.jhuapl.edu/News-Center/Show-Article.php?articleID=193 – last viewed 11/16/2023)

Witze, Alexandra. “Astromers Find the Farthest-Out Solar System Object Ever Seen.” Scientific American. 10 November 2015. (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/astronomers-find-the-farthest-out-solar-system-object-ever-seen/ – last viewed 11/16/2023)

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