Monumental solar probe mission nearing summer launch

“Never regret thy fall,

O Icarus of the fearless flight

For the greatest tragedy of them all

Is never to feel the burning light.” – Oscar Wilde

An extraordinary mission to study mysteries of the Sun’s atmosphere—looking to revolutionize how researchers can forecast solar radiation—will one day play a role in aiding deep space missions to Mars and beyond.

The Parker Solar Probe will repeatedly sample the Sun’s environment, answering critical questions about the corona an area several hundreds of times hotter than the visible surface of the Sun. The mission also looks to confirm the theory of the corona’s supersonic expansion into space, known as the solar wind.

The solar wind lets scientists get readings of the magnetic field of the Milky Way galaxy that’s created a “bubble” filled by the Sun known as the heliosphere.

“We’re going to go down there, in the worst thermal environment you can imaging and measure and prove and find what heating processes are making the corona hot, and what’s accelerating the solar wind,” said NASA Science Mission Directorate Associate Administrator Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen.

The probe will approach the sun only 570 times due to the extreme environment. The spacecraft will travel at 430,000 miles per hour, or 118 miles per second. If you traveled that fast on Earth, passengers could commute from New York to Tokyo in less than a minute, according to Parker Solar Probe Project Scientist Dr. Nicola Fox.

Team researchers and scientists at large are puzzled by the corona being hotter than the Sun’s surface. Fox said she’s most interested to know why the atmosphere gets so energized, with the capability of the solar wind to visit every object in our solar system with east.  Some estimates place the emission of light at the surface of the sun can lag the actual production of light at the core by a million years, with photons taking up to 20,000 years for light to reach the Sun’s surface.

The Parker Solar Probe will travel seven times closer to the Sun than any other previous solar mission. A custom carbon composite heat shield developed through NASA’s research and development wing will protect the spacecraft as it travels from extreme heat and extreme cold. Special solar panels will help keep the spacecraft cool. All design aspects are currently being tested to ensure survival in the extreme environment.

Temperatures in the corona can get up to 1 million degrees, while only 2,500 degrees at the surface.

“I like to call it the coolest, hottest mission under the sun,” Fox said. “Until you go there and touch the sun, you really can’t answer these questions. Our instruments that will be tucked behind our heat shield will be operating at about room temperature.”

In preparation of a final launch in Summer 2018, all spacecraft aspects will be shipped to the Goddard Space Flight Center for final thermal testing before moving on to Florida to test the Delta IV heavy and third stage rocket boosters.

“We’ll have a third stage because we have to be moving so fast so we can surf around the sun,” Fox said. “We also need a gravity assist around Venus to accelerate the probe to ensure we hit our solar orbital targets.”

After launch, the mission will encounter the Sun on a “close approach” after two months, followed by six Venusian flybys for seven years, getting closer to the sun until settling at a distance of 4.5 million miles from the Sun.

“If the Earth and the Sun were separated by on meter, we would be four centimeters from the Sun,” Fox said. “It’s actually very close.”

The spacecraft and mission is dedicated to University of Chicago professor Dr. Eugene Parker, who discovered the existence of the solar wind in 1958 at a reception in June of last year. NASA has never named a project after a researcher during their lifetime, marking Parker’s 90th birthday with renaming the mission from Solar Probe Plus to “The Parker Solar Probe.”

“You can’t imagine all the strange things that have been discovered in the Sun,” Parker said. “I’ve always looked upon myself as a physicist learning new tricks by looking at nature. Space, the whole galaxy and the universe,  I know of no better place to find new physics.”

The university collaborated with NASA on a cosmic ray telescope project on the International Space Station this year; a telescope project at the south pole looking for structures of cosmic microwave background noise in the search for dark matter; and the Giant Magellan Telescope, set to be operational in 2021 capable of producing 10 times sharper images than currently possible.

Parker said the intense nature of the mission should be recognized as a monumental endeavor.

“I’m greatly honored to be associated with such a heroic scientific space mission,” Parker said. “It’s heroic due to the extreme measures this team will go to collect that data. That needs to be appreciated.”

“We will finally touch the Sun,” Fox said.

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