NASA's mission to touch the Sun is decades in the making, sending the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft directly into the Sun's corona. Named after Chicago physicist Eugene Parker, the mission seeks to answer questions Parker set down in his groundbreaking paper theorizing the existence of solar wind all the way back in 1958.
The observations Parker Solar Probe makes will answer questions we have about solar wind, the Sun's corona, and space weather, so here is what you need to know.
What is the Parker Solar Probe
The Parker Solar Probe is a spacecraft that will fly through the Sun's corona- the outermost part of the Sun's atmosphere- in order to observe and measure how energy and heat behave in the Sun's atmosphere. Dubbed the mission to touch the Sun, Parker Solar Probe will get closer to the Sun that any other spacecraft ever has.
Over the seven year mission, Parker will conduct observations with the primary goal of learning more about solar wind and how the energy of the Sun's corona moves. These observations will not only help us better understand stars, but we can use the info gained to predict space weather for future space exploration missions.
The Journey to the Sun
Once in orbit, Parker Solar Probe travel towards the Sun, covering a distance of 89.1 million miles. Three months after launch, the spacecraft will make it's first close approach, and will then complete 24 orbits around the Sun over a period of seven year.
Using Venus for gravity assists, Parker Solar Probe will gradually orbit closer to the Sun until it is within 3.9 million miles of the Sun and traveling at 430,000 miles per hour.
The Spacecraft and Science Instruments
The Parker Solar Probe spacecraft includes four science instruments, a carbon-composite heat shield, two solar arrays, and three types of antenna. The heat shield will protect the spacecraft as it approaches the Sun, keeping it around 85°F in a 2,500°F environment. The five antenna, one High-Gain Antenna, two Fan-beam Antenna, and two Low-Gain Antenna, will downlink science data and support uplink command and the health of the spacecraft to mission support.
The science instruments on board Parker Solar Probe include:
- FIELDS surveyor, an instrument suite, which will capture both the scale and space of the magnetic and electric fields in the Sun's atmosphere so that scientists can better understand the turbulence found in heliosphere.
- SWEAP (Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons Investigation) consists of two instruments- the Solar Probe Cup and the Solar Probe Analyzers- that work together to gather particles found in solar wind and then measure their properties.
- WISPR (Wide-Field Imager for Parker Solar Probe) will capture images of the Sun's corona and solar wind.
- IS☉IS (Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun) includes two instruments, EPI-Lo and EPI-Hi with EPI being used as the acronym for Energetic Particle Instrument. This instrument will measure electrons, protons, and ions in order to understand their life cycle and how they move through space.
Solar Wind and Mission Science
The investigation of our Sun is vital to our understanding of solar wind and the environment of space. Given that our Sun is the star closest to us, it is the best candidate to study in order to answer questions and theories scientists have been trying to understand for decades.
The observations made from the Sun's corona will provide date regarding the Sun's atmosphere, how heat is generated and moves. Solar eruptions and solar winds that move into the environment of space will be observed from close up, giving scientists a better idea of how they accelerate and what their life cycle looks like. Finally, the probe will give us more information about some of the most basic processes of our Sun so we can better understand stars in general.
Going forward the data gathered can hopefully provide some background and information for better predicting space weather for us on Earth and in space.
The Parker Solar Probe is launching atop the Delta IV Heavy rocket from Space Launch Complex-37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The launch date is set for no earlier than August 11th, 2018, with spacecraft separation occurring approximately 43 minutes after launch.
ULA's Delta IV Heavy is ULA's most powerful rocket with three common booster cores and capable of 2.1 million pounds of liftoff thrust. With the Payload fairing, the rocket's height reaches 233 feet on the launchpad.
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