On 'mission to touch the sun,' Parker Solar Probe launches Saturday

The mission will not exactly touch the sun, which burns at a balmy 9,941 °F, but it will be monumental in that it will drastically further our knowledge of the sun, according to a statement on NASA's website. The study will spend 7 years.

The PSP's primary goal is to trace the energy flow through the solar corona, with an eye toward solar wind acceleration. Again, close is a relative description, as Parker will make it to about 3.8 million miles from the Sun's surface, the closest it can be without being incinerated. It is hoped that the Parker Solar Probe will teach scientists which idea is right. On Board facilities are a high-quality camera, so soon, scientists will enjoy interesting images. Solar wind can reach speeds of 1.8 million miles per hour - but how the particles are accelerated to such speeds remains a mystery.

The Parker Solar Probe is quite small, about the size of a small vehicle, and it weighs about 1,500 pounds.

Not only is the corona about 300 times hotter than the Sun's surface, it also hurls powerful plasma and energetic particles that can unleash geomagnetic space storms, wreaking havoc on Earth by disrupting the power grid.

"But the day we go to Mars, we'll need to be able to predict solar eruptions of these particles, which can be deadly", he told AFP.

The Parker probe's final three orbits - in 2024 and 2025 - will be the closest. "During summer, Earth and the other planets in our solar system are in the most favorable alignment to allow us to get close to the Sun". "The solar corona is one of the last places in the solar system where no spacecraft has visited before".

"We'll be going where no spacecraft has dared go before - within the corona of a star", said project scientist Nicky Fox of APL. Are humans about to share a similar fate with the first probe to explore the Sun, or will our ingenuity spare us? During its closest approach to the sun, the probe is expected to reach 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The reason is that the Earth moves at around 18.2 miles per second as it orbits the Sun.

The probe is named after Dr. Eugene Parker, of the University of Chicago, who is an American solar astrophysicist. This is some 4 percent the distance between Earth and the Sun.

Fox puts it this way: If the sun and Earth were on opposite ends of a football field, Mercury would be at the sun's 35-yard line, Helios 2 at the 29-yard line and the Parker probe at the 4-yard line.

"All of our data on the corona so far have been remote", said Nicholeen Viall, solar physicist at Goddard. Among the properties that it will be measuring regularly are the electric and magnetic fields present, along with the velocity, density, and temperature of particles that typically make up solar wind-protons, electrons, and heavier ionized nuclei.

"That's a relatively light spacecraft", said Andy Driesman, project manager for the mission at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. The spacecraft and its suite of delicate instruments will be protected from the sun's extreme heat by a carbon fiber heat shield.

"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.

"This is the first time NASA has named a spacecraft for a living individual", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

  • Essie Rivera