Published: Sun, August 12, 2018
Sci-tech | By Jackie Newman

NASA mission to 'touch the sun' launches Saturday

NASA mission to 'touch the sun' launches Saturday

The Parker Solar Probe is the first spacecraft named after a living person, Eugene Parker, a University of Chicago astronomy and astrophysics professor emeritus whose 1958 research changed what we know about the sun.

The spacecraft is expected to make its closest approach to the sun in the year 2024, as it flies 3.9 million miles above the solar surface.

The launch of the Parker Solar Probe will set it on a journey all the way to the Sun's atmosphere, or corona - closer to the Sun than any spacecraft in history, NASA said in a statement.

But the Parker Solar Probe was built to do just that. "However, we did not have the technology that could protect a spacecraft and its instruments from the heat", said Adam Szabo, the mission scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

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NASA says it's ready for a historic trip to the sun this weekend. The first Venus flyby is in October, followed by the first dip into the sun's corona in November. That stream of particles is now known as the solar wind. So the probe first has to make it out of our atmosphere into space, and then it has to run its engines hard enough to cancel out the momentum from Earth's orbit - otherwise it would follow roughly the same path. We've studied it from missions that are close in, and even as close as the planet Mercury, but we have to go there.

When closest to the sun, the 4½-inch-thick carbon-composite solar shields will have to withstand temperatures close to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Either the magnetic field allows for large energy conductions between the surface of the Sun and the corona, and when large energy discharges occur, they heat the plasma, or the heat conduction is produced by oscillations of this same magnetic field which will heat the plasma particles in the corona. Its launch window will open at 3.48am (eastern daylight time, or 7.48am Greenwich mean time) on Saturday 11 August. It will fly by our solar system's hottest planet seven times over seven years, using the gravity of Venus to shrink its own oval orbit and draw increasingly closer to the sun. It's the fastest any man-made object will have ever traveled and the probe will likely hold that title for a long time. The more different dynamics the probe can watch, the more scientists can learn about how our star really works.

To protect the suite of science instruments created to unlock answers about the solar corona and solar wind, Parker is a compact, but strong spacecraft. The only way we can do that is to finally go up and touch the sun. "We want to see all the different things that the sun throws at us". Apart from Parker's photo and his research paper are more than 1 million names of space fans who submitted their named to Nasa this past spring. One would like to have some more detailed measurements of what's going on in the solar wind.

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