NASA is going closer to the Sun than anyone has gone before

The spacecraft will use seven Venus flybys over nearly seven years to gradually shrink its orbit around the sun. Pic John Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab

This weekend, in the dark hours before dawn, NASA plans to send a spacecraft to touch the sun. The study will spend 7 years. Somewhere in the Sun's corona - the source of glow that you can see during a total solar eclipse - these particles can reach supersonic speeds and are collectively called the solar wind.

NASA hopes the probe will successfully travel through the sun's atmosphere, closer to the surface than any spacecraft before it. The Parker probe will be able to identify how these solar winds are formed, and perhaps explain the mechanism that allows the particles to escape. On Board facilities are a high-quality camera, so soon, scientists will enjoy interesting images.

Parker published research predicting the existence of solar wind in 1958, when he was a young professor at the University of Chicago's Enrico Fermi institute. These explosions create space weather events that can pummel Earth with high energy particles, endangering astronauts, interfering with Global Positioning System and communications satellites and, at their worst, disrupting our power grid.

The heatshield, made of carbon composites, must be positioned between the spacecraft and the Sun's corona at all times during close encounters.

"Eight long years of hard work by countless engineers and scientists is finally paying off", said Adam Szabo, the mission scientist for Parker Solar Probe at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Hurtling toward the sun at about 430,000 miles per hour - enough to get from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., in one second - it will achieve its first solar encounter a month later.

Among them: Why does the corona - the ghostly halo of plasma, or ionized gas, surrounding the sun - reach temperatures higher than 2 million degrees Fahrenheit, hundreds of times hotter than the sun's broiling surface? NASA's probe is named for Parker, making it the first time the agency has named a mission for a living person.




An illustration of the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft approaching the sun. That's a scant 4 percent of the 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) between Earth and the sun.

Scientists have wanted to build a spacecraft like this for more than 60 years, but only in recent years did the heat shield technology advance enough to be capable of protecting sensitive instruments, according to Fox. Missions such as the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and the twin Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) spacecraft keep a constant watch for sunspots, solar flares, coronal holes and CMEs. Such particles can interfere with satellite electronics, especially for satellites outside of Earth's magnetic field.

Before Parker, the record-holder for closest solar pass was the Helios 2 spacecraft, which went within 27 million miles in 1976.

"This could help us do a much better job of predicting when a disturbance in the solar wind could hit Earth, triggering space weather that could disrupt Global Positioning System, radio, radar and the electric grid", said Justin Kaspar, a professor at the University of MI and a principle investigator for the Parker Solar Probe. It will also carry more than 1.1 million names submitted by the public that will eventually "orbit the sun forever", Fox 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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