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Parker Solar Probe details revealed

Parker Solar Probe spacecraft approaching the Sun

Artist’s concept of the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft approaching the Sun. Launching in 2018, Parker Solar Probe 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: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

NASA, in collaboration with the University of Chicago and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), announced on May 31, 2017, a groundbreaking new mission to explore the Sun at close range. The Parker Solar Probe will launch in 2018 and will spend nearly seven years spiraling in toward the Sun, utilizing Venus for seven gravitational assists before making its closest approach of about 3.7 million miles (6 million kilometers) from the Sun’s surface.

The main objective of the mission is to gain a better understanding of the solar wind at its source to build better models for predicting the behavior of stars as well as predicting solar weather events.

Parker Solar Probe emblem

NASA’s first mission to go to the Sun, the Parker Solar Probe, is named after Eugene Parker who first theorized that the Sun constantly sends out a flow of particles and energy called the solar wind. Image & Caption Credit: NASA / JHU-APL

The mission is named in honor of Dr. Eugene Parker, the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. Dr. Parker proposed the existence of the solar wind at the Fermi Institute in 1958, upending the traditionally held view that the vacuum of space was stable. The solar wind was first observed by the Soviet Luna 1 spacecraft in January 1959 and has been studied in detail by many space-based observatories since.

“I am honored to be a part of such a heroic mission,” said Dr. Parker after it was announced that the previously named Solar Probe Plus mission would be renamed in his honor.

The legacy for the Parker Solar Probe dates back to 1958 when a committee convened at the University of Chicago that provided recommendations to NASA and the Department of Defense on the topic of solar radiation during crewed and robotic spaceflight. Among the committee’s top priorities was the development of a solar probe capable of sampling the near-solar environment.

However, despite being a major priority for six decades, the solar probe has been slow to get off the ground.

“The materials did not exist” to build the spacecraft until recently, said Dr. Nicola Fox, mission project scientist at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The materials technology to construct the Parker Solar Probe required several advances including the development of a heat shield and a solar array capable of withstanding temperatures of up to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,371 degrees Celsius) during the probe’s closest approach to the Sun.

As detailed on the mission website, the Parker Solar Probe has three primary science objectives:

  • Trace the flow of energy that heats and accelerates the solar corona and solar wind
  • Determine the structure and dynamics of the plasma and magnetic fields at the sources of the solar wind
  • Explore mechanisms that accelerate and transport energetic particles

The mission is scheduled to launch between July 31 and August 19, 2018, on a Delta IV Heavy rocket to provide the relatively small probe with the speed that it will need to plunge into the inner Solar System – a maneuver that requires more energy than trajectories extending outward into the Solar System beyond Earth’s orbit. The closest approach to the Sun will occur in 2024 at a distance of approximately 3.7 million miles (6 million kilometers).

During its closest approaches to the Sun, the Parker Solar Probe will be traveling at nearly 450,000 miles per hour (724,200 kilometers per hour), equivalent to about 125 miles per second (201 kilometers per second). The mission is tentatively planned to make 24 orbits of the Sun between 2018 and 2025.

Video courtesy of NASA Goddard

 

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Paul is currently a graduate student in Space and Planetary Sciences at the University of Akransas in Fayetteville. He grew up in the Kansas City area and developed an interest in space at a young age at the start of the twin Mars Exploration Rover missions in 2003. He began his studies in aerospace engineering before switching over to geology at Wichita State University where he earned a Bachelor of Science in 2013. After working as an environmental geologist for a civil engineering firm, he began his graduate studies in 2016 and is actively working towards a PhD that will focus on the surficial processes of Mars. He also participated in a 2-week simluation at The Mars Society's Mars Desert Research Station in 2014 and remains involved in analogue mission studies today. Paul has been interested in science outreach and communication over the years which in the past included maintaining a personal blog on space exploration from high school through his undergraduate career and in recent years he has given talks at schools and other organizations over the topics of geology and space. He is excited to bring his experience as a geologist and scientist to the Spaceflight Insider team writing primarily on space science topics.

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