NASA on Sunday launched the Parker Solar Probe – the space agency’s first mission to the sun – that will explore the sun’s atmosphere and its outermost atmosphere, the corona. The spacecraft is named after 91-year old solar physicist Eugene Parker, 91, who was the first scientist to describe solar wind in 1958.
After being delayed on Saturday, the probe was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket, one of the world’s most powerful rockets.
The probe, about the size of a car, will fly through the Sun’s atmosphere and will come as close as 3.8 million miles to the 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), according to NASA. The Parker probe is expected to make 24 loops of the Sun over seven years.
Solar Probe to endure 1,370 degrees Celsius temperature
During the journey, the spacecraft will fly by Venus at speeds of 4,30,000 mph, the equivalent of flying from New York to Tokyo in one minute. In order to reach an orbit around the sun, the Parker Solar Probe will take seven flybys of Venus that will essentially give a gravity assist, shrinking its orbit over the course of nearly seven years.
The specially shielded Parker Solar Probe will have to endure temperatures up to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,370 degrees Celsius) and solar radiation intensities 475 times higher than we’re used to here on Earth.
Main objectives of Parker Solar Probe?
The mission, which hopes to uncover the Sun’s mysteries, will accumulate a gamut of data about its structure and magnetic and electric fields, as well as the energetic particles cruising near and away from Earth’s star. These events can affect satellites and astronauts as well as the Earth — including power grids and radiation exposure on airline flights, NASA said.
The information will help researchers and scientists solve two longstanding mysteries:
* How the solar wind is accelerated
* Why the sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona, is so much hotter than the solar surface, NASA officials have said
* Explore mechanisms that accelerate and transport energy particles
What part of this mission will ‘touch’ the Sun?
The Solar Probe Cup, dubbed ‘the bravest little instrument’, is a sensor that will extend beyond the heat shield to “scoop up samples” of the Sun’s atmosphere, according to Professor Justin Kasper of the University of Michigan. The cup will glow red when the probe makes its closest approach to the sun, sampling the solar wind and effectively touching the sun.
Mission to end in 2025
The mission is scheduled to end in June 2025. The first data download from the Parker Solar Probe is expected in early December after the probe reaches its first close approach of the sun in November. “Eventually, the spacecraft will run out of propellant. In 10 to 20 years, a carbon disk will be floating around the sun in orbit, and it will be around until the end of the solar system,” CNN quoted Andy Driesman, Parker Solar Probe project manager at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, as saying.
Europe’s Solar Probe in works
The European Space Agency is also building a similar solar probe. Solar Orbiter, or SolO as it’s sometimes known, is undergoing final assembly and testing in the UK. It is expected to launch in 2020, arriving at its closest position to the Sun towards the end of Parker’s planned seven years of operations. SolO will go to within 42 million km of the Sun’s surface. That’s further away than Parker but it will still need an impressive shield.