I know we’re primarily an automotive site, but we’re really a site for all manner of vehicles. We cover airplanes, trains, motorcycles, and I’m not opposed to covering the occasional elevator or moving sidewalk, if, say, the Otis people want to drop off a press elevator at my house. We also cover spacecraft as well, which brings us to the thing I want to tell you about today. You see, there’s been a new speed record set, and it’s a big one, because it’s the fastest that any human-built anything has ever gone. The anything in question here is the Parker Solar Probe, and from what I can tell, it seems to have accomplished this feat without any racing stripes whatsoever. Just think how fast this baby would go if it had some badass stripes on it! I’d say NASA should send a mission to put stripes on it, but that wouldn’t work, because this thing is just too damn fast to catch now. How fast? It’s almost 400,000 miles per hour.
The Parker Solar Probe, launched in 2018, is currently in a heliocentric orbit and is, at this moment, only 4.51 million miles above the surface of the sun, the closest any human-made thing has gotten to the sun. It’s planned to go even closer – up to 3.9 million miles – as part of its mission to study the sun and collecting data as if flies through the outer part of the sun’s atmosphere, the corona, which is also the name of a well-respected old Toyota.
But, right now, we’re talking about speed, raw speed, top speed, and as of this moment, the Parker Space Probe broke its former record and set a new one at 394,736 mph. That’s 0.059% the speed of light! That’s, what, like Warp 0.06? By comparison, the Voyager probes that are currently speeding out of our solar system and into interstellar space are going at about a tenth the speed of the Parker Solar probe, about 38,000 mph. The International Space Station orbits the Earth at about 17,500 mph, and the fastest aircraft – the NASA/US Air Force X-15 – only creeps along at 4,520 mph. This isn’t even close.
Even better, the probe is expected to reach speeds of up to 430,000 mph by 2025, so this thing isn’t done setting records yet.
Now, the big relevant question for us is is this a vehicle? It’s an uncrewed probe, essentially a robot that’s been launched at the sun. If it’s not designed to carry people, can it still count as a vehicle? Generally, we also call objects designed to transport cargo as vehicles, too, and if we count the cargo of scientific instruments and sensors aboard the Parker Solar Probe as cargo, then perhaps it can be considered a vehicle? As far as vehicles go, it weighs about the same as an old air-cooled VW Beetle, around 1600 pounds, and yet manages to go about 394,656 mph faster than one.
The way it achieved these speeds is novel for a vehicle as well, as most of the speed doesn’t come from the work of any onboard engines. Instead, speed has been gained via a series of gravity-assist slingshot-type maneuvers from six flybys of the planet Venus. Here’s an explanation about how these sorts of things work:
If you’d rather Neal DeGrasse Tyson explains it to you, okay, we can do that:
That’s why this probe is nearly all scientific instruments and heat shields and there’s minimal propulsion systems. In fact, the only propulsion system the probe has are a dozen 4.4 newton hydrazine thrusters. Each of those only provides about a pound of force, and they’re used to steer and direct the probe.
Sure, there’s going to be so much new data about the sun collected from this probe that it’s likely people’s entire careers could be built from just the results of what the Parker discovers. But, at this moment, it’s pretty fun just to know what the fastest thing we ever built is, and the upper limit on the top speed of what humans can build it. At least for now.