What to know about NASA’s Parker Solar Probe mission to the sun

A NASA probe is about to launch on a mission to the sun in the name of protecting the Earth.

On Saturday, the space agency’s Parker Solar Probe is expected to launch to orbit, beginning its long and winding journey that will eventually allow humanity to touch our nearest star for the first time.

The probe is expected to take flight atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket at 3:33 a.m. ET on Saturday, ironically launching to the sun in the dead of night from Cape Canaveral Florida. 

If you happen to be awake, you can watch the launch in the window below via NASA TV:

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After launch, the spacecraft will head toward the sun’s atmosphere, known as the solar corona, made up of super hot plasma.

“The solar corona is one of the last places in the solar system where no spacecraft has visited before,” Parker Solar Probe scientist Adam Szabo said in a statement. “It gives me the sense of excitement of an explorer.”

And explore it will. 

The car-sized spacecraft will fly as fast as 430,000 miles per hour, making it the fastest human-made spacecraft ever, according to NASA. The probe will use Venus’ gravity to slow itself down as it makes its close approaches with the sun.

Over the course of about seven years, the spacecraft will orbit the sun about 24 times, eventually flying just 3.8 million miles above the star’s surface at its closest point. (For reference, the Earth orbits the sun at a distance of about 93 million miles on average.)

During its years in space, the Parker is expected to reveal never-before-seen aspects of the sun’s atmosphere and the star as a whole.

“We’ll be going where no spacecraft has dared go before — within the corona of a star,” project scientist Nicky Fox said in a statement

“With each orbit, we’ll be seeing new regions of the sun’s atmosphere and learning things about stellar mechanics that we’ve wanted to explore for decades.”

The spacecraft is named for Eugene Parker, the scientist who first predicted the existence of the solar wind — fast-moving solar particles that stream through the entire solar system. 

Solar wind can create a whole host of issues for humans — from messing with GPS communications to exposing astronauts in space to high radiation — and the Parker Solar Probe is launching on a mission to figure out where it comes from. 

Data gathered by the probe is also expected to help us learn more about space weather in general. If we’re able to learn more about its origin and behavior, it might be possible to predict when space weather might occur. 

“The solar wind also fills up much of the solar system, dominating the space environment far past Earth,” NASA said

“As we send spacecraft and astronauts further and further from home, we must understand this space environment just as early seafarers needed to understand the ocean.”

Scientists have had to take great care to make sure that the Parker Solar Probe doesn’t burn up in the process of conducting its important science. 

The craft comes equipped with a thick shield made of carbon composite foam and carbon fiber. That shield should absorb the extreme heat of the sun, heating up to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit and keeping the spacecraft and its sensitive instruments at 85 degrees Fahrenheit, according to NASA.

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