NASA announced the mission recently to explore the surface of the sun. Named the Parker Solar Probe mission, the spacecraft will come as close as four million miles to the sun’s surface. While this does not seem close, consider that this is the closest any craft has ever gotten to the Earth’s nearest star. NASA plans on launching the probe in late July to mid-August of 2018.
The Parker Solar Probe is named after the astrophysicist Eugene Parker. Parker theorized supersonic solar wind and also the shape of the solar magnetic field in the outer solar system. Through Dr. Parker’s work, scientists now under solar coronas, solar winds, and the magnetic fields of not only the Earth but the Sun. In the late twentieth century, Parker theorized that solar coronas could be heated by nanoflares. Nanoflares can be seen on the sun’s surface and look like solar flares. NASA renamed the Solar Probe Plus spacecraft to honor Parker.
Because of the sun’s astronomical temperatures, no probe has been able to get close to the sun to examine it. NASA hopes to “unlock the mysteries of the corona” with the help of the probe, according to a press release from NASA. The corona sits at the center of the solar mystery, which according to The New York Times could soon be answered. The corona is where solar winds erupt and “disrupt activities on Earth.” While the surface of the sun is only 10,000 degrees, the corona itself is 3.5 million degrees Fahrenheit.
Nicola Fox, the Parker Solar Probe’s mission project scientist, said that to answer questions about the sun, NASA has to “touch the sun.” The mission will last seven years with 24 orbits and hope to fulfill these objectives: tracing energy flow heating and accelerating solar coronas and solar winds; ascertain the “structure and dynamics of the plasma and magnetic fields;” and discover what “accelerates and transport energetic particles,” the NASA press release stated. Forbes added that the heat shield is 4.5 inches thick and will take the brunt of the temperature while the “rest of the craft will be at room temperature.” Also included on the probe are solar panels to power the probe’s journey; magnetometers; a radio antenna; a FIELDS Antenna to record “radio emissions coming from the sun” and an SWEAP SPC that will “gather solar wind particles.”
National Geographic reported that the Parker Solar Probe would make its first closest approach by December of 2024. It will fly by Venus on September of 2018 and do the first solar flyby in November 2018. Venus will help the probe’s all of its flybys with a gravitational assist. “We see the sun every day, but we don’t know much about it,” Fox stated.
The probe itself must be able to hold up against 2,500-degree temperatures when orbiting between the sun and Venus. To accomplish this, NASA is integrating a large enough disc made of carbon composite. It will travel at 430,000 miles per hour and will be closer to the sun than anything ever made by man. Dr. Parker said that he was positive that the sun would hold “some surprises” in the mission. “There always are,” he added.
By Cheryl Werber
Image Courtesy Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory