After four decades of planning, NASA is expected to launch its Parker Solar Probe at 3:33 a.m. EDT Saturday.
The agency’s goal is to go where humanity has not gone before – inside the sun’s 1 million-degree atmosphere, with an approach of only 3.8 million miles from the surface. In comparison, Earth is nearly 93 million miles from the sun.
How is it even possible to explore so close to the sun, and what does NASA hope to gain from the mission?
David Alexander, director of the Rice Space Institute, moved from the U.K. to the U.S. in 1993, and one of the first mission concepts he was involved with following the move was what was then called the Solar Probe, recently named Parker Solar Probe after University of Chicago scientist Gene Parker, who first elucidated the physics behind the solar wind.
“The Parker Solar Probe is a revolutionary spacecraft that will allow us to explore a critical region of the solar atmosphere where we believe the solar wind is accelerated to around 1 million miles per hour,” Alexander said. “The solar wind is a stream of energetic ions and electrons that continually bathe Earth, exciting its atmosphere and potentially causing problems for satellites and other space resources. The probe will skim through the solar atmosphere at a distance of less than 4 million miles, or some 25 times closer than Earth, where temperatures on the spacecraft may exceed 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The Parker Solar Probe is a major engineering achievement and will deliver outstanding science.”
NASA said the mission will revolutionize our understanding of the sun, where changing conditions can propagate out into the solar system, affecting Earth and other planets. Parker Solar Probe will travel through the sun’s atmosphere, closer to the surface than any spacecraft before it, facing brutal heat and radiation conditions — and ultimately providing humanity with the closest-ever observations of a star.
“Inside that part of the solar atmosphere, a region known as the corona, Parker Solar Probe will provide unprecedented observations of what drives the wide range of particles, energy and heat that course through the region — flinging particles outward into the solar system and far past Neptune,” the space agency wrote on its website. “Inside the corona, it’s also, of course, unimaginably hot. The spacecraft will travel through material with temperatures greater than 1 million degrees Fahrenheit while being bombarded with intense sunlight.”
So, why won’t it melt? Click here to find out straight from NASA.
“Parker Solar Probe has been designed to withstand the extreme conditions and temperature fluctuations for the mission,” NASA stated. “The key lies in its custom heat shield and an autonomous system that helps protect the mission from the sun’s intense light emission, but does allow the coronal material to ‘touch’ the spacecraft.”
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