NASA sending spacecraft straight into sun's glittering crown

12 August, 2018, 16:13 | Author: Sam Montgomery
  • Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Awaiting liftoff, the car-sized probe is already packed on to the Delta IV-Heavy rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

At Parker Solar Probe's closest approach to the Sun, temperatures on the heat shield will reach almost 1,371 degrees Celsius, but the spacecraft and its instruments will be kept at a relatively comfortable temperature of about 29.4 degrees Celsius. It's created to take solar punishment like never before, thanks to its revolutionary heat shield that's capable of withstanding 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,370 degrees Celsius).

One science task of the probe is to study the acceleration of the solar wind and the Sun's constant outflow of material, while the other is exploring the secret of the corona's enormously high temperatures, said NASA.

The Parker probe, which will venture the nearest ever to the Sun to study its atmosphere, will be launched on August 11th.

The big launch is now less than 40 hours away, with the probe's first close approach to the sun slated for November.

Nearly everything on the spacecraft will be behind this and thus in room-temperature shade while ducking through the jagged edges of the corona, without so much as a blister on its science instruments.

"It's a spacecraft loaded with technological breakthroughs that will solve numerous largest mysteries about our star, including finding out why the sun's corona is so much hotter than its surface", said mission scientist Nicola Fox, with Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

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But the Parker Solar Probe was built to do just that.

But these solar outbursts are poorly understood.

During its nominal mission lifetime of just under seven years, Parker Solar Probe will complete 24 orbits of the Sun - reaching within 3.8 million miles of the Sun's surface at closest approach. And so, these are sort of the three fundamental questions we want to address: "the speed of the solar wind, this eruptive phenomena, solar storms, and how is the corona heated?"

The Parker Solar Probe will dive deeply into the solar corona, experiencing some of the most hellish temperatures imaginable. Why in this region does the solar atmosphere suddenly get so energized that it escapes from the hold of the sun and bathes all of the planets?

"NASA was planning to send a mission to the solar corona for decades". FIELDS will measure electric and magnetic waves around the probe, WISPR will take images, SWEAP will count charged particles and measure their properties, and ISOIS will measure the particles across a wide spectrum. A distance of 3.8 million miles from the Sun is impressively close. Parker's first paper was rejected, but it was saved by a colleague, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, an astrophysicist who would be awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize for Physics. His work revolutionized our understanding of the sun and interplanetary space. Then a long adventure lies ahead for the Parker probe. There is also a white light imager, taking pictures of what the spacecraft is about to "plow through", said Fox.

The Parker Solar Probe is quite small, about the size of a small auto, and it weighs about 1,500 pounds.

"We have ideas about what will be found, but the most important results may well come from observations that are completely unexpected", said Mark Wiedenbeck, a researcher at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and part of the ISOIS team. One would like to have some more detailed measurements of what's going on in the solar wind.

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