NASA’s car-sized spacecraft the Parker Solar Probe – will boldly go where no spacecraft has dared to go before: to the Sun. After being delayed twice, the Delta IV rocket lifted off with the probe from Cape Canaveral, Florida early Sunday morning. Since then the probe has successfully separated from the rocket and is on its way to the sun!
On its journey to the sun, the probe will first flyby Venus in early October. Why Venus? Its gravity will help slow the probe and direct its orbit closer to the sun. The probe will first arrive at the sun on November 5, 2018.
During its 7 year mission, it will make a total of 24 orbits around the Sun and seven flybys of Venus. At its closest approach to the sun, it will be a mere 3.8 million miles away from the broiling solar surface.
FYI: Mercury the closest planet to the sun only gets as close as 29 million miles to its star!
What will the solar probe study?
There are 4 instruments on board the probe that will take various measurements and images of the sun’s atmosphere. NASA’s first mission to the sun is hoping to solve 2 mysteries amongst other things!
The mysterious case of the scorching corona: The sun is enveloped by several layers of gases called its atmosphere. The outer layer of the Sun’s atmosphere which is far from its surface is called the corona. The corona is 300 times hotter than the Sun’s underlying surface. This phenomenon has puzzled astrophysicists for years!
The mysterious source of supersonic solar wind: The Sun constantly releases an outflow of particles, called the solar wind. The solar wind travels at very high speeds, escapes the sun’s gravity and travels through the solar system. Scientists are hoping to understand the driving force behind this solar wind!
Why do we care about solar wind? When blasts of solar wind arrive at Earth, they can set off beautiful aurora at the poles but can also create problems with satellites, imperil astronauts, cause power blackouts, and interrupt communications signals.
How will the probe withstand the heat and radiation of the sun?
First, did you know the solar probe is going to travel through freezing temperatures to get to the sun’s atmosphere? It will transition from very cold to very hot temperatures of up to 2,500°F!
The probe has been designed after extensive engineering and testing to withstand fire and ice.
The probe has a white shield and a water-powered cooling system amongst other things to help it survive in extreme temperatures. The shield is made of a carbon-carbon composite that will help disperse the heat.
NASA’s $1.5 billion mission to explore the sun will create many “firsts”: The Parker probe is also the first spacecraft to be named after a living scientist. Eugene Parker, a 91-year-old astrophysicist (someone that studies the physical nature of stars) developed theories about solar wind 60 years ago. Dr. Parker was present to view the launch of spacecraft.
Written By: Shruti Divecha and Biyash Choksey