World-first solar probe en route to "touch the Sun"
The origins of NASA's Parker Solar Probe mission can be traced back to a paper published 60 years ago by astrophysicist Eugene Parker, describing high speed matter emanating from the center of our solar system. Today the spacecraft carrying his name lifted off and is now en route to the Sun, where it will enter its orbit in an attempt to delve into these solar winds and their closely guarded secrets.
The Parker Solar Probe launched from Cape Canaveral aboard a Delta IV Heavy rocket at 3:31 am on Sunday morning, and is now operating nominally as it heads for the Sun. Having separated from the rocket after being carried out beyond Earth's atmosphere, the probe's solar panels have now been deployed and it is confirmed to be power positive.
Its next steps involve deploying a high-gain antenna and magnetometer boom, along with its electric field antennas. In September, the team will carry out instrument testing over a period of around four weeks, with its science operations to begin thereafter, all things going to plan.
Rather than taking a direct route to the Sun, the Parker Solar Probe will first head for Venus, where it will perform a gravity-assisted maneuver to position itself for a tight orbit around the star. In early November, the probe is expected to fly as close as 15 million miles (24 million km) to the Sun's surface, closer than any manmade object before it.
In doing so it will pass through the Sun's atmosphere, known as the corona, where it will encounter temperatures of nearly 2,500° F (1,377° C). The probe's journey through this scorching hot environment is only made possible through recent advances in thermal engineering, manifesting in a 160-lb (72-kg) heat shield that bounces the Sun's energy away and keeps its science instruments to a cool 85° F (29.5° C).
The Parker Solar Probe will venture as close as 3.8 million miles (6.11 million km) to the Sun as it goes about it business, traveling as fast as 430,000 mph (700,000 km/h) along the way. Among the questions it will seek to answer as it makes 24 total flybys of our star include why is the corona, in parts, more than 300 times hotter than the surface?
But its main focus will be the origins of solar winds, streams of sub-atomic particles that are born in the corona and are blasted outwards throughout the solar system at supersonic speeds. These winds carry parts of the Sun's magnetic field along for the ride and influence our planet, along with other bodies throughout the solar system.
The instrument suite aboard the probe will image the solar winds and measure the magnetic fields and energetic particles. It is hoped that through this we will learn more about how energy and heat travel through the sun's atmosphere and the acceleration of solar winds. This could bring new understanding about how life on Earth evolved, along with new perspectives on other stars around the universe.
"Exploring the Sun's corona with a spacecraft has been one of the hardest challenges for space exploration," says Nicola Fox, Parker Solar Probe project scientist at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. "We're finally going to be able to answer questions about the corona and solar wind raised by Gene Parker in 1958 – using a spacecraft that bears his name – and I can't wait to find out what discoveries we make. The science will be remarkable."
The Parker Solar Probe is set for a seven-year mission, and is expected to begin transmitting its first science data in December.