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NASA's superfast Parker Solar Probe just broke it own speed record at the sun

An artist's depiction of Parker Solar Probe studying the sun.
An artist's depiction of Parker Solar Probe studying the sun. (Image credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory)

A NASA sun-gazing spacecraft broke its own speed and distance records Sunday (Nov. 21) as it moved closer to our star.

The Parker Solar Probe reached a top speed of 101 miles (163 kilometers) per second during its 10th close solar flyby on Sunday, which translates to a dizzying 364,621 mph (586,000 kph), NASA officials said.

The high speed comes as Parker braves the heat to get closer to the sun, on a quest to better understand how our star generates "space weather" that affects everything from satellite operations to astronaut safety to auroras. And Parker just set a closest-distance record, too, getting a mere 5.3 million miles (8.5 million km) from the sun's surface, which is known as the photosphere

NASA didn't publish exactly what records Parker just beat, but a glance at the last close flyby shows us the most likely numbers. On Aug. 9, Parker was roughly 6.5 million miles (10.4 million km) away from the sun's surface and hit a top speed of about 330,000 mph (532,000 kph).

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Getting so close to the sun exposes Parker to extreme temperatures, which engineers prepared for with a unique heat shield (involving reflective paint, a carbon-foam core and panels of carbon-carbon composite) affectionately dubbed a "giant Frisbee".

Engineers are getting surprised by the amount of dust near the sun, however. That said, the spacecraft is robust in dealing with dust, even if modeling work performed before launch didn't account for the amount the probe is seeing, NASA officials said in a statement.

"We designed materials and components that survive hypervelocity dust impacts and the effects of the even smaller particles created in these impacts," Jim Kinnison, Parker Solar Probe mission systems engineer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, in the statement. 

"We modeled the makeup and effects of the dust environment," Kinnison added, "tested how materials react to the dust particles, and installed fault-tolerant onboard systems that are keeping Parker Solar Probe safe in this unexplored region."

The mission team expects to keep breaking speed and distance records, especially after Parker finishes two Venus flybys in August 2023 and November 2024 to pick up more speed. By December 2024, Parker should get as close as 4 million miles (6.2 million kilometers) to the solar surface, with speeds of more than 430,000 mph (690,000 kph.)

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for Space.com who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.