By Prarthana Mitra
After breaking new grounds on the moon and Mars, Scientists at NASA have been working on a spacecraft to understand how the sun’s atmosphere works. With Parker Solar Probe, we will be one step closer to discovering the mysteries beyond the sun’s corona for the first time.
The $1.5 billion spacecraft is scheduled for a launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida on August 11.
First ever mission to touch the sun
Using Venus’ gravity to bring it closer to the sun, Parker Solar Probe, named after 91-year-old pioneering solar astrophysicist Eugene Parker, will skim the sun’s surface 3.83 million miles above it. This is closer than the numbers look, given the sweltering temperature at this distance from the core.
According to project scientist Nicky Fox of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, Parker Solar Probe is also “the fastest human-made object,” speeding at a pace of 430,000 miles per hour.
An “incredibly daring journey”
During its seven-year mission, the spacecraft will invade the corona a couple dozen times, with its sun-facing side exposed to an average temperature of about 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,370 Celsius). This is about 500 times the radiation that the earth receives.
The spacecraft comes with a 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite heat shield that maintains the spacecraft operational at room temperature. The instrument aboard the console will measure the sun’s magnetic and electric fields, plasma waves and high energy particles. It will also transmit visuals via a white light imager.
Solving the coronal problem
Fox said, “As we go from the surface of the Sun, which is 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and move up into the corona, we find ourselves quickly at millions of degrees.” The Parker Solar Probe is expected to solve the mystery behind this coronal heating problem.
The corona is a “very strange, unfamiliar environment for us,” explained Alex Young, a solar scientist at the US space agency. Scientists at NASA want to primarily solve the gigantic mismatch between the temperature in outer corona, and that in the centre.
Comprehensive knowledge about how the corona works will help scientists anticipate dangerous space weather storms which frequently disrupt the power grid on Earth. “It’s of fundamental importance for us to be able to predict space weather much the way we predict weather on Earth,” Young added.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.