NASA's mission to 'touch the sun' surprises during first data delivery

The Parker Solar Probe has swung past the sun twice, downloading more new science data than expected.

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Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
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Too hot (hot damn), called a police and a fireman.

Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Right now, there's a tiny little spacecraft zipping around the sun moving faster than any other man-made object has ever flown. The spacecraft, known as the Parker Solar Probe, is approaching the one-year anniversary of its launch on Aug. 12 and it's been delivering some pretty stellar observations so far. I mean, just look at the image it snapped from inside the sun's atmosphere back in December! After two flybys, Parker has been dumping data back to Earth for scientists to examine -- and it's exceeding researchers' expectations.

In a blog post on Aug. 1, researchers from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, which designed and built the spacecraft, announced that the Parker Solar Probe had delivered 22GB of data after its second encounter with the sun finished up on May 6, performing better than prelaunch estimates. The amount of data was 50% more than researchers previously expected to see.

"As we learned more about operating in this environment and these orbits, the team did a great job of increasing data downloads of the information gathered by the spacecraft's amazing instrument," said Nickalaus Pinkine, a missions operator at JHAPL.

Watch this: NASA's Parker Probe: Everything you need to know about the plan to 'touch the sun'

After launch, Parker's controllers were able to maximize the way the data was downloaded and now expect to pull another 25GB of science straight off the Little Solar Spacecraft That Could between July 24 and Aug. 15.

We've never had a probe this close to the sun, so the measurements that scientists on the ground are now evaluating have never been encountered before. Parker's four instruments are able to measure particles in the sun's atmosphere, its magnetic fields, the solar wind and how electrons, protons and ions are spilling out of the hot ball of plasma. The large cross-section of new data will greatly increase our knowledge about the sun and its effects across the entire solar system.

The probe's next meeting with the sun will start on Aug. 27, and its closest approach will come on Sept. 1. On Dec. 26, it will fly by Venus for the second time, gathering speed as it prepares to cozy up to the sun in an even closer orbit.

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