Gravity Assist: Venus Flyby Sends Parker Solar Probe Toward Record-Setting Flights Around the Sun

Parker Solar Probe Passing Venus

An illustration of Parker Solar Probe passing Venus. Recently, the spacecraft conducted a close flyby of Venus to set itself up for a series of record-setting orbits around the Sun. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe used a Venus flyby to prepare for its upcoming record-setting orbits around the Sun, aiming to study the Sun’s mysteries as part of the ‘Living With a Star’ program.

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe zoomed past Venus on August 21, using the planet’s gravity to aim toward a record-setting series of flights around the Sun that start next month.

At just before 8:03 a.m. EDT, moving approximately 15 miles (more than 24 kilometers) per second, or 54,000 miles (85,000 km) per hour, Parker Solar Probe passed 2,487 miles (4,003 kilometers) above the Venusian surface as it curved around the planet toward the inner solar system. The mission operations team at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, kept in contact with the spacecraft during the flyby through NASA’s Deep Space Network – except for an expected 8 minutes at closest approach, when Venus was between Earth and Parker – and determined the spacecraft was on course and operating normally.

NASA Parker Solar Probe Artist's Concept

Artist’s concept of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe observing the sun. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

Comments From the Mission Operations Manager

“Parker Solar Probe remains on track to make its closest flybys yet of the Sun,” said Nick Pinkine, Parker Solar Probe mission operations manager from APL. “Parker’s success is a tribute to the entire mission team, but I’m especially proud of the mission operators and the job they’ve done over the past five years to ensure the flawless operation of this incredible, history-making spacecraft.”

Parker Mission Operations

Standing, from left, Parker Solar Probe Mission Operations Manager Nick Pinkine and Project Manager Helene Winters discuss the progress of Parker’s gravity assist flyby of Venus with members of the spacecraft operations team at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory on August 21. Credit: NASA/ Johns Hopkins APL/Brooke Hammack

Role of Venus Gravity Assists

Venus gravity assists are essential to guiding Parker Solar Probe progressively closer to the Sun; the spacecraft relies on the planet to reduce its orbital energy, which in turn allows it to travel closer to the Sun – where, since 2018, it has been exploring the origins and unlocking the secrets of the solar wind and other properties of the near-Sun environment at their source.

This was the Parker mission’s sixth of seven planned Venus gravity assists. This week’s flyby served as an orbit maneuver applying a velocity change – called “delta-V” – on Parker Solar Probe, reducing its orbital speed by about 5,932 miles per hour (9,547 kilometers per hour). The maneuver changed the spacecraft’s orbit and set Parker Solar Probe up for its next five close passes by the Sun, the first of which occurs on September 27.

On each close approach (known as perihelion), Parker Solar Probe will set or match its own speed and distance records when it comes to within just 4.5 million miles (7.3 million kilometers) from the solar surface, while moving close to 394,800 miles (635,000 km) per hour.

Guidance and Control Lead Sarah Hefter

Guidance and Control Lead Sarah Hefter, of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, monitors Parker Solar Probe’s trek around Venus in the Parker Mission Operations Center at APL on August 21. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Brooke Hammack

The Living With a Star Program

Parker Solar Probe was developed as part of NASA’s Living With a Star program to explore aspects of the Sun-Earth system that directly affect life and society. The Living With a Star program is managed by the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. APL was responsible for designing, constructing, and operating the Parker Solar Probe, and also manages its mission on behalf of NASA.

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