Flying to the Sun: Parker Solar Probe

Solar probe to give Earth the closest look at sun ever.

In 1977, two unique space probes were launched out into outer space- Voyager 2 and 1- to do something that had never been done before- to give Earth her first close up view of the planets of the outer solar system.

Nearly 50 years later another such unique space probe has been launched- the Parker Solar Probe- with a purpose that was thought unattainable as of now- to “touch” the star that sustains us- our Sun.

Roughly the size of a small car, the probe was launched on August 11, 2018. It is meant to 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- and at a speed 210 times faster than a speeding bullet.

“This mission truly marks humanity’s first visit to a star that will have implications not just here on Earth, but how we better understand our universe,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “We’ve accomplished something that decades ago, lived solely in the realm of science fiction.”

How will it reach the sun?

The Parker Solar Probe will use gravity assists from Venus seven times over the seven years of its journey to gradually bring its orbit closer to the Sun. In simple words this means that the Parker Solar Probe will use the gravitational force of Venus to slingshot itself closer to the sun. It will hurtle around the Sun at speeds up to 430,000 miles per hour, with 24 total passes by the Sun, journeying steadily closer to the Sun until its closest approach at 3.8 million miles.

How will it tolerate the heat of the sun?

The heat of the sun is no joke. The incident solar radiation, or in simple terms-solar energy from the sun, at perihelion is 475 times the intensity present at the orbit of Earth.

Let’s find out how the probe is designed to deal with this unimaginable amount of heat.

  • The spacecraft’s systems are protected from the extreme heat and radiation near the Sun by a solar shield.
  • The solar shield is hexagonal and mounted on the Sun-facing side of the spacecraft and is made of reinforced carbon–carbon composite, which is designed to withstand temperatures outside the spacecraft of about 1,370 °C.
  •  A white reflective alumina surface layer minimizes absorption.
  • The spacecraft systems and scientific instruments are located in the central portion of the shield’s shadow, where direct radiation from the Sun is fully blocked. If the shield were not between the spacecraft and the Sun, the probe would be damaged and become inoperative within tens of seconds.

How is this mission important?

Exploration of the sun is a matter of age old jokes. One goes like this: “If it’s hard to go near the sun because it’s hot- then just go at night!”

Jokes like this stood on the assumption that flying close to the sun- for a human or a space craft was impossible, which held true, up until now. So, understandable the Parker Solar Probe has generated a lot of pubic interest.

But it’s also important for us to know what the scientific purpose of the mission is.

The Parker Solar Probe is meant to answer mysteries of the sun that have been sought by scientists for over 60 years now and will bring a revolution in our understanding of the object that makes life on Earth possible.

  • The secret of the scorching corona, which is more than 300 times hotter than the Sun’s surface.
  •  The supersonic solar wind – the constant stream of solar material that blows through the entire solar system.
  • What accelerates and transports solar energetic particles, which can reach speeds up to more than half the speed of light as they rocket away from the Sun.

Who is it named after?

Eugene Parker watches the launch of Parker Solar Probe.

The most obvious question of all is who the personality behind the name of the space probe is.

The mission was named for Eugene Parker, a solar astrophysicist who proposed a number of concepts about how stars, specifically our Sun, give off energy- the supersonic solar wind and predicted the Parker spiral shape of the solar magnetic field in the outer solar system.

A plaque dedicating the mission to Parker was attached to the space probe along with a memory card containing more than 1.1 million names submitted by the public to travel with the spacecraft to the Sun.

The plaque also contains a quote from him– “Let’s see what lies ahead.”

 

 

Image and information credits to:

NASA, Wikipedia.

For more information on the Parker Solar Probe visit https://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/parker-solar-probe