by Elton Gomes
NASA is on schedule to launch its first mission to the sun – the Parker Solar Probe, a car-sized probe that will travel within four million miles of the sun’s surface, facing heat and radiation like no spacecraft before. The Probe is expected to take off before August 6 from the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy, and will study the sun closer than any human-made object ever has. “We’ve been studying the Sun for decades, and now we’re finally going to go where the action is,” said Alex Young, an associate director at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in the US, as per a PTI report.
The probe will be coated with a 5-inch thick coat of carbon-composite solar shields. The mission is NASA’s first to the sun and its outermost atmosphere, known as the corona. Nicola Fox, Parker Solar Probe project scientist at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, said, “The spacecraft is buttoned up, looking beautiful and ready for flight,” CNN reported.
CNN further reported that the launch window will open on August 6 and will end of August 19. If everything goes as per schedule, the probe will launch on the morning of August 6 from Cape Canaveral on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket. The probe itself is about the size of a car, but a powerful rocket is needed so that it can escape the Earth’s orbit, change direction, and reach the sun.
Moreover, the probe will rely on Venus in order to achieve an orbit around the sun. Six weeks after launch, the probe will encounter Venus for the first time. This will happen to slow down the probe, and is similar to pulling on a handbrake. The probe’s encounter with Venus will direct the probe such that it is on the sun’s path.
“The launch energy to reach the Sun is 55 times that required to get to Mars, and two times that needed to get to Pluto,” said Yanping Guo from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Guo, who had designed the mission trajectory, added, “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,” as reported by CNN
What is the Parker Solar Probe?
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe was named after physicist Eugene Parker, who became famous for publishing a groundbreaking paper
on solar winds in 1958. The probe is a robotic spacecraft which is roughly the size of a small car. The Solar Probe team will maneuver the probe into the corona, which is the sun’s outermost atmosphere, at 430,000 miles per hour. This would be the first time a man-made structure would face such brutal heat. The probe is expected to go seven times closer to the sun to navigate its atmosphere. NASA said that the mission had been in the works since the past 60 years. The reason why it took so long to finalise was that materials to withstand the heat did not exist. The probe will be fitted with new solar panels
that will recharge themselves while facing the sun’s heat.
What does the probe aim to find out?
Through the probe, scientists intend to unravel the secret
behind the sun’s constant outflow of material that seems to be accelerating solar winds. Scientists need to confirm whether the sun is the origin of solar winds. In order to figure out a solution to this query, the probe will be released into the sun’s corona.
Secondly, scientists aim to gain a better understanding of the “coronal heating problem
,” which is where the sun’s atmosphere is hundreds of times hotter than the sun’s surface. Scientists do know that the phenomena might involve the interaction between the sun’s heat and magnetic waves, but nothing has been confirmed yet.
Lastly, Parker Solar Probe’s instruments should be able to reveal the mechanisms
behind the acceleration of solar energetic particles. These particles are known to interfere with satellite electronics, particularly those satellites that are outside the Earth’s magnetic field.
Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius
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