Spaceflight Insider

Parker Solar Probe approved for environmental testing

The Parker Solar Probe spacecraft approaching the Sun

An artist’s concept of the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft approaching the Sun. Launching in 2018, the craft will provide new data on solar activity and make critical contributions to our ability to forecast major space-weather events that impact life on Earth. Image & Caption Credit: JHUAPL

The Parker Solar Probe, formerly called Solar Probe Plus, has been certified ready for environmental testing. This means that engineers have inspected the spacecraft and have decided it is ready to be subjected to simulations of the conditions it will face during its launch and operations in space.

The solar probe will operate closer to the Sun than any spacecraft before. In order to survive this harsh environment, it will use a special heat shield that will protect the craft from the Sun’s extreme heat. That heat shield was installed earlier this month in preparation for testing.

Now the probe will have to endure several tests to ensure its readiness for launch and for operating in the outer space environment.

One of the tests necessary to ensure the correct operation of the spacecraft’s instruments has already been performed. During the magnetic swing test, the probe was lifted several feet in the air on a crane and swung back and forth. Meanwhile, magnetometers placed around the room recorded the change in the magnetic field caused by the swinging spacecraft. This allows scientists to understand and calculate the magnetic field that the probe itself generates, and to later remove that influence from the readings the instruments will take in space.

Parker Solar Probe at APL

Engineers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, work on NASA’s Parker Solar Probe spacecraft. The craft will be the first-ever mission to fly directly through the Sun’s atmosphere. Photo & Caption Credit: JHUAPL

Next, the spacecraft will be attached to a shake table at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, where it was assembled. The table will subject the probe to the kind of vibrations it will endure during its launch on a Delta IV Heavy in the summer of 2018.

After the solar probe passes its shake table test, it will be transported a short distance to Goddard Space Flight Center where it will continue its testing. There, the spacecraft will be subjected to acoustical testing, which simulates the acoustical environment inside the payload fairing of the launch vehicle. It will also undergo thermal cycling and vacuum testing, ensuring the craft can operate in the vacuum of space and survive the rapid heating and cooling that space operations often involve.

After testing is completed, the spacecraft will be shipped to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in the spring of 2018 where it will be prepared for a July 31, 2018, launch atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket. Parts of the rocket that will carry the Parker Solar Probe into space have already started arriving at Cape Canaveral.

The Parker Solar Probe is named after solar physicist Eugene Parker, who wrote a paper predicting the existence of solar wind. The probe will examine conditions closer to the Sun’s surface than any other spacecraft and scientists hope it will answer some of the many questions that still remain about solar wind and the Sun’s atmosphere. The mission is part of NASA’s Living with a Star program, which seeks to study the star closest to Earth: the Sun.

Video courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory



Christopher Paul has had a lifelong interest in spaceflight. He began writing about his interest in the Florida Tech Crimson. His primary areas of interest are in historical space systems and present and past planetary exploration missions. He lives in Kissimmee, Florida, and also enjoys cooking and photography. Paul saw his first Space Shuttle launch in 2005 when he moved to central Florida to attend classes at the Florida Institute of Technology, studying space science, and has closely followed the space program since. Paul is especially interested in the renewed effort to land crewed missions on the Moon and to establish a permanent human presence there. He has covered several launches from NASA's Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral for space blogs before joining SpaceFlight Insider in mid-2017.

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