Published: Sun, August 12, 2018
Sci-tech | By Javier West

Nasa space probe will aim to ‘touch’ sun

Nasa space probe will aim to ‘touch’ sun

NASA counted down Friday to the launch of a $1.5 billion spacecraft that aims to plunge into the Sun's sizzling atmosphere and become humanity's first mission to explore a star.

The spacecraft launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and will be hitching a ride on board United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy rocket, which has an added third stage and is all geared up for a speedy liftoff. The 8-foot (2.4-meter) shield will face the sun during the close solar encounters, shading the science instruments in the back and keeping them humming at a cool 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius).

The spacecraft is protected by a heat shield that will keep it closer to room temperature, about 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

The solar spacecraft will collect data with a suite of instruments created to help our understanding of solar winds, their impacts on Earth as well as survey the outer corona, where solar wind is produced.

NASA's Parker Solar Probe is set to launch early Sunday morning, on an ambitious new mission to attempt what has never been attempted before - to "touch" the Sun. Although the corona reaches millions of degrees, it's a wispy, tenuous, environment and so the spacecraft won't need to endure such severe temperatures. It is hoped that the Parker Solar Probe will teach scientists which idea is right. "If you have a better understanding of the behavior of these solar energetic particles, then you can make better predictions about when to send astronauts to Mars or protect a satellite before it gets ripped apart by a radiation burst".

Though it's shedding sideways speed to get closer to the Sun, Parker Solar Probe will pick up overall speed, bolstered by Sun's extreme gravity - so it will also break the record for the fastest-ever human-made objects, clocking in at 430,000 miles per hour on its final orbits.

The PSP's primary goal is to trace the energy flow through the solar corona, with an eye toward solar wind acceleration.

The spacecraft holds photos of Parker as well as a copy of his 1958 research paper on what he termed solar wind. From there, each orbit around the Sun will bring the spacecraft on a trajectory to dive through the topmost layer of the solar corona - the Sun's intensely hot atmosphere.

"We've been inside the orbit of Mercury and done awesome things, but until you go and touch the sun, you can't answer these questions", said Nicola Fox, mission project scientist. And so how are we going to do it? During this mission, he will measure and study the movement of high energy particles near the sun. As lovely as the corona is, it represents a massive headache for astrophysicists and solar physicists.

An artist's rendition of the PSP venturing close to the Sun's surface.

Before Parker, the record-holder for closest solar pass was the Helios 2 spacecraft, which went within 27 million miles in 1976. Sixty years ago, the young astrophysicist proposed the existence of solar wind.

The Parker Solar Probe will carry a chip with photos of Parker, his revolutionary paper and his message to the sun: "Let's see what lies ahead".

The answers that Parker finds would not just help scientists understand the behavior of the sun, Kasper and his colleagues said.

"We have ideas about what will be found, but the most important results may well come from observations that are completely unexpected", said Mark Wiedenbeck, a researcher at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and part of the ISOIS team.

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