Parker Solar Probe to launch in August

Soon, a new mission will swoop toward the sun. It won’t be Helios’ chariot. It won’t be Ra traveling on his solar barques.

Instead, it will be the first spacecraft to study the sun up close. In the past, NASA and other space agencies have studied the sun through observational satellites like WIND or SOHO. Parker Solar Probe will be the first craft to travel into the corona.

Wait, what? How?

space-center-houston_2018_003_v2 Artist rendering of Parker Solar Probe. Image credit: NASA

Parker Solar Probe will perform its scientific investigations in a hazardous region of intense heat and solar radiation. The spacecraft will fly close enough to the Sun to watch the solar wind speed up from subsonic to supersonic, and it will fly though the birthplace of the highest-energy solar particles.

In order to unlock the mysteries of the Sun’s atmosphere, Parker Solar Probe will use Venus’ gravity during seven flybys over nearly seven years to gradually bring its orbit closer to the Sun. The spacecraft will fly through the Sun’s atmosphere as close as 3.8 million miles to our star’s surface, well within the orbit of Mercury and more than seven times closer than any spacecraft has come before. (Earth’s average distance to the Sun is 93 million miles.)

What will it do?

The primary science goals for the mission are to trace how energy and heat move through the solar corona and to explore what accelerates the solar wind as well as solar energetic particles. Scientists have sought these answers for more than 60 years, but the investigation requires sending a probe right through the 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit heat of the corona. Today, this is finally possible with cutting-edge thermal engineering advances that can protect the mission on its dangerous journey. Parker Solar Probe will carry four instrument suites designed to study magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles, and image the solar wind.

Why the sun?

  • The Sun is the only star we can study up close. By studying this star we live with, we learn more about stars throughout the universe.
  • The Sun is a source of light and heat for life on Earth. The more we know about it, the more we can understand how life on Earth developed.
  • The Sun also affects Earth in less familiar ways. It is the source of the solar wind; a flow of ionized gases from the Sun that streams past Earth at speeds of more than 500 km per second (a million miles per hour).
  • Disturbances in the solar wind shake Earth’s magnetic field and pump energy into the radiation belts, part of a set of changes in near-Earth space known as space weather.
  • Space weather can change the orbits of satellites, shorten their lifetimes, or interfere with onboard electronics. The more we learn about what causes space weather – and how to predict it – the more we can protect the satellites we depend on.
  • The solar wind also fills up much of the solar system, dominating the space environment far past Earth. As we send spacecraft and astronauts further and further from home, we must understand this space environment just as early seafarers needed to understand the ocean.

    Who is it named after?

    space-center-houston_2018_003_v2 Dr. Eugene Parker

    In the mid-1950s, a young physicist named Eugene Parker proposed a number of concepts about how stars — including our sun — give off energy. He called this cascade of energy the solar wind, and he described an entire complex system of plasmas, magnetic fields and energetic particles that make up this phenomenon. Parker also theorized an explanation for the superheated solar corona, which is — contrary to what was expected by then-known physics laws — hotter than the surface of the sun itself. His theory suggested that regular, but small, solar explosions called nanoflares could, in enough abundance, cause this heating.

    More than half a century later, the Parker Solar Probe mission will finally be able to provide key observations on Parker’s groundbreaking theories and ideas, which have informed a generation of scientists about solar physics and the magnetic fields around stars. Much of his pioneering work, which has been proven by subsequent spacecraft, defined a great deal of what we know about the how the sun–Earth system interacts.

    Born on June 10, 1927, in Michigan, Parker received a B.S. in physics from Michigan State University and a Ph.D. from Caltech in 1951. He then taught at the University of Utah, and since 1955, Parker has held faculty positions at the University of Chicago and at its Fermi Institute.