GREENBELT – On a mission to touch the sun, the NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has successfully launched aboard a Delta-IV Heavy Rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Aug. 12. This spacecraft will be the closest humanity has ever been to the sun, and will evolve a deeper understanding of our solar system’s nearest […]
GREENBELT – On a mission to touch the sun, the NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has successfully launched aboard a Delta-IV Heavy Rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Aug. 12.
This spacecraft will be the closest humanity has ever been to the sun, and will evolve a deeper understanding of our solar system’s nearest living star, along with studying the very nature of stars throughout the universe.
The probe will also allow us to be able to predict solar weather that can ultimately affect our life here on Earth and create hostile environments for our satellites and astronauts out in space.
“This is actually one of the things that have the most direct effect on us in space,” said Michelle Thaller, astronomer and assistant director for Science Communication at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “We are continuously bombarded by high energy particles that we call the solar wind…This sort of solar weather, when there’s a big flare on the sun (something we call a coronal mass ejection) where the sun actually throws material out, that material can hit the Earth.
It doesn’t actually cause any damage to us as far as life forms, but it can disrupt our electricity, it can damage satellites that are up in orbit, and some days, we have astronauts back on the moon or far out in space. Those solar storms could be dangerous to those astronauts. So, it’s very important to understand how the sun generates this wind and how to better predict it and figure out when it will actually be dangerous to us.”
This spacecraft that will have a top speed of about 430,000 miles per hour, and will be able to withstand temperatures as high as 2500 degrees Fahrenheit. As incredible as it sounds, what makes this feat possible is the strategy and technology engineered behind the scenes.
The spacecraft was primarily built at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel and tested at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. Scientists were able to create a plan on how the probe would be able to get as close to the sun as it could without being pulled into the sun and burning up.
During its mission to “touch” the sun, Parker Solar Probe will use gravity assists from Venus seven times over nearly seven years to gradually bring its orbit closer to the sun. It will fly directly through the Sun’s atmosphere, as close as 3.8 million miles from its surface, closer to the surface than any spacecraft before it. The spacecraft will hurtle around the sun at speeds up to 430,000 miles per hour. That’s 15 times faster than a speeding bullet.
To take the distance between the sun’s surface and the probe at face value, it wouldn’t seem very close at all, but in actuality, it is the closest it can be without risking the functionality of the probe and its operations.
“If you were to put the Earth and the sun on either end of a football field, that would mean Parker would be at the 4-yard line next to the Sun,” said NASA Helio-physicist Alex Young. “That’s pretty darn close.”
The technology to protect the spacecraft from extreme heat and radiation combines “two pieces of technology designed to handle the extreme environment,” Young said.
“One is a heat shield. It is a carbon composite of foam and fiber. It’s about four and a half inches thick, sits in front of the spacecraft, but it also has a cooling system around that uses one gallon of ordinary water which cools the spacecraft as well as the solar panels.
Together, these take an environment in front of the spacecraft that’s 2500 degrees Fahrenheit and creates a cool, room temperature, where the instruments are, back behind the heat shield. So it’s just an amazing way to handle the hostile radiation that we’re going to experience when the spacecraft flies into the corona.”
Being able to withstand the treacherous obstacles the sun has presented, the Parker Solar Probe will be able to finally unlock the mysteries of the corona through the sampling of the sun’s atmosphere itself.
“The atmosphere of the sun is really mysterious to us because the gas in the atmosphere is several million degrees hot,” said Thaller. “But the surface of the sun itself is only about 10,000 degrees. And this is a true mystery. I mean, why does it get hotter as you go farther away from the surface?
We have several theories about what might be happening, but we’ve never really been close enough to test our theories, to figure out which one of them are correct and which one of them are wrong.”
With years of research in the making, the foundation for this mission dates back 60 years ago, with the publication of the paper “Dynamics of the Interplanetary Gas and Magnetic Fields,” written by American solar astrophysicist Eugene Parker.
Parker, who the solar probe is named after, predicted the existence of solar wind, and detailed in his 1958 paper his theory on the characteristics of the wind, and explained what would later be known as the Parker spiral shape of the solar magnetic field within the outer solar system. At this point, almost no one believed his ideas and ridiculed its premise. However, Parker pointed out that no scientist could not find any errors in his theory, and the paper was published.
During the 1960’s, his theory was proven correct when satellite observations were able to verify the existence of energetic particles moving through space.
With Parker’s groundbreaking research setting the pavement for scientists and researchers to follow, the Parker Solar Probe shows how far technology and innovation have progressed, to the point of inventing creations of our wildest imaginations. If this mission is successful, the Parker Solar Probe will become the cornerstone of our understanding of the sun, the stars, and the entirety of our universe.