NASA Preps to 'Touch' the Sun With Parker Solar Probe
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Plans are being made to shuttle humans to Mars in the next decade or so, but NASA is also eyeing a much hotter endeavor -- touching the sun (sort of).
The space agency's Parker Solar Probe is scheduled to depart Earth next summer and make its way to the sun's atmosphere, the corona, about 4 million miles from its surface. While that's not exactly "touching" the sun, NASA explains, it's more than seven times closer than any spacecraft has come before, and will hopefully help answer key questions scientists have long had about the sun.
"These questions are so simple," Nicola Fox, mission project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, said during a Wednesday event in Chicago. "Why is the corona hotter than the surface of the sun? That defies the laws of nature. It's like water flowing uphill; it shouldn't happen. Why in this region does the solar atmosphere suddenly get so energized that it escapes from the pull of the sun and bathes all the planets?"
NASA also expects to gather information that will "allow us to better forecast how our Earth's environment responds to the sun [and] better predict space weather," Fox said.
Today's event was in honor of astrophysicist Eugene Parker, a pioneer of solar wind research. When it takes off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center next summer, the solar probe will bear Parker's name, NASA announced today, the first time the agency has named a spacecraft for someone who is still alive.
"The solar probe is going to a region of space that has never been explored before," Parker said in a statement. "It's very exciting that we'll finally get a look. One would like to have some more detailed measurements of what's going on in the solar wind. I'm sure that there will be some surprises. There always are."
At this point, the Solar Probe team is building and testing the spacecraft. Several instruments are already integrated and most of them should be attached by the end of the summer, Fox said. By year's end, it will move to Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., where the probe will be put through its paces and make sure it can withstand the type of heat it will encounter in the sun's corona. It will then move to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Those scorching temperatures are the main reason it's taken so long for this type of mission to get off the ground. When Parker first started his research nearly 60 years ago, "the materials didn't exist to allow us to be able to do it," Fox said.
Now, the team has created heat shields that can largely handle the sun's heat. The corona's temperatures can soar to a couple million degrees Fahrenheit, and while the Parker Solar Probe won't get that close, the corona will still be about 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. With the heat shield, though, the instruments tucked in its shadow will be room temperature, according to Fox.
The probe will also encounter very cold temperatures as it uses Venus's gravity during seven flybys over nearly seven years to gradually bring its orbit closer to the sun. "Getting something that will withstand that kind of thing is really revolutionary," Fox said.
The launch window is currently set for July 31 to Aug. 19, 2018.