NASA’s Parker Solar Probe recently became the spacecraft closest to the Sun. The mission is designed to understand the origins of the Sun and the phenomenon around it, before it plunges into the Sun’s atmosphere.
Over a duration of seven years, the Parker Solar Probe will help estimate origins of the solar system, the life cycle of stars, as well as the energy patterns of heat and radiation that it emits. Here are five reasons why this probe is considered as one of the biggest attempts in terms of space missions.
NASA Parker solar probe: First spacecraft to study a star
The Parker solar probe, launched on August 11 this year, is a part of NASA’s ‘Living With a Star’ program. Specifically, the mission will intend to create an understanding between the Sun-Earth system, and explain certain solar phenomena. This probe will attempt to study two sections of the Sun: the corona and its atmosphere.
Of these, the corona is the outermost extent of the Sun’s atmosphere, which also sees the action of energy dissipation, known as coronal ejections. While the corona cannot be distinguished from a distance, except in instances of a solar eclipse, the Parker solar probe will be able to observe its behaviour first-hand and gain important data of its effect on the solar system.
Meanwhile, the solar atmosphere will hold clues to the weather patterns on the Sun, as well as the origin of solar winds.
Parker solar probe: First mission to be named after living person
The latest spacecraft launched by NASA is also its first to be named after a living person. The Parker solar probe gets its name from physicist Eugene Parker, who provided concepts to the energy generating capabilities of stars. Parker, who served at the University of Chicago’s Fermi Institute, was among the first persons to coin the term ‘solar wind’, which he described as the cascade of energy emitted by the Sun.
His theories explain the existence of solar wind, which constitutes a combination of charged particles, as well as electric and magnetic fields. In addition, he had postulated that the Sun’s outermost atmosphere, was hotter than the surface itself. Many of Parker’s findings have been used to establish modern theories related to the nature and behaviour of stars.
NASA Parker solar probe: Energy detecting instruments on board
This will consist of four instruments, that are expected to throw light on the behaviour of the Sun. FIELDS is one of the instruments, which is an array of five 2m-long antennas. Each of these will be able to withstand hight temperatures, and estimate the electric and magnetic fields of the star.
FIELDS will take measurements by dipping into the Sun’s atmosphere, to record readings of the total flux (combination of electric and magnetic fields) at different distances from the Sun’s surface. The phenomenon of solar wind deals with the ejection of large quantities of energy, that changes the behaviour of the Sun as well as the planets of the solar system, including Earth.
WISPR is the only imaging tool included in the Parker probe. It will help estimate masses like coronal ejections and other projectiles, while blocking out light from the Sun’s surface for visualisation. These are expected to help estimate the size of its atmosphere, and help explain the nature of radiation that emerges. WISPR consists of two cameras with radiation-hardened Active Pixel Sensor complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) detectors.
Parker solar probe: Radiation analysis and mapping instruments on board
Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons unit, or SWEAP, will help analyse the particles that can be found in solar winds. The instrument setup is also supported by a Solar Probe Cup (SPC) and Solar Probe Analysers (SPAN), which will also measure the velocity, density, and temperature of the components of coronal plasma SPC can catch charged particles in a vacuum, and estimate the nature of particles from collector plates.
The other component, SPAN is made up of two sensors: SPAN-A and SPAN-B. Both of these will map the movement of electrons into space, to create a mapping of the solar wind movements.
The last of these, called Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun (ISʘIS), helps identify particles that move away from the Sun, and identify the energies of each of them across different sections of interplanetary space. The task of detecting particles with different energies is divided between two sensors: EPI-Lo (for lower energy particles) and EPI-Hi (for higher energy particles) [EPI stands for Energy Particle Instrument].
Of them, EPI-Lo will consider particles such as oxygen, carbon, neon, magnesium, silicon, iron and helium isotopes, He-3 and He-4. These will be analysed on the basis of their masses, as well as the state of charge.
On the other hand, EPI-Hi will estimate the behaviour of the particles with respect to their ability to ionize components of a metallic plate, that monitors the flow of electrons and protons. When the Parker probe approaches its closest distance from the Sun’s surface, EPI-Hi will be able to measure up to 100,000 particles every second.
NASA Parker solar probe: Closest distance of any spacecraft from Sun
On October 29, Parker reached a unique milestone, and became the closest spacecraft ever to the Sun. It beat the record that was previously held by the Helios 2, that reached within 27 million miles (43.45 million km) of the solar surface. For most of its studies, the Parker probe will maintain a distance of around 15 million miles (24.15 million km) away from the Sun’s surface.
This distance will reduce to 3.8 million miles (6.12 million km) by the final orbits of the Parker spacecraft around the Sun, expected around the end of 2024, where it will attain a speed of 430,000 miles per hour (692,000 km per hour). To put these measures in perspective, the average distance between the Sun and Mercury, the solar system’s first planet, is 36 million miles (57.94 million km).
With its latest movements, NASA has confirmed that all instruments on board are well and operational. These have already been used to map images of the Earth, the Moon, as well as other celestial bodies.