Science

SpaceFlight Insider’s Parker Solar Probe launch highlights

SpaceFlight Insider’s Parker Solar Probe launch highlights

The spacecraft will eventually pass within 4 million miles of the sun's surface, close enough to skim through the star's outer atmosphere.

Parker Solar Probe is humanity's first-ever mission into a part of the Sun's atmosphere called the corona.

NASA's Parker Solar Probe launched early August 12 to begin a $1.6 billion, seven-year mission to help scientists better understand the genesis of the Sun's intense heat, high-velocity solar wind, far-reaching radiation and magnetic influence.

According to NASA, during the spacecraft's mission to touch the sun, the probe will use gravity assisted from Venus seven times over almost seven years to gradually bring its orbit closer to the Sun and will fly directly through the Sun's atmosphere as close as 3.8 million miles from its surface.

The probe will fly close enough to observe solar winds, assess their speed and study the formation of high-energy solar particles, which are associated with flares that can wreak havoc on Earth.

A better understanding of the sun's life-giving and sometimes violent nature could also enable earthlings to better protect satellites and astronauts in orbit, along with the power grids so vital to today's technology-dependent society, said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's science mission chief.

Over the next two months, Parker Solar Probe will fly towards Venus, performing its first Venus gravity assist in early October - a manoeuvre a bit like a handbrake turn - that whips the spacecraft around the planet, using Venus's gravity to trim the spacecraft's orbit tighter around the Sun.

Astrophysicist Eugene Parker, centre, stands in front of the rocket carrying the solar probe named after him.

Consisting of two layers of carbon-carbon composite sandwiched around carbon foam, the front of the shield, coated with white ceramic paint, will withstand temperatures up to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Weighing 685 kilograms fully fueled, the Parker Probe is relatively small in comparison to other NASA science missions such as the Mars Science Laboratory which weighed about 3,900 kilograms at launch. On its very first brush with the sun, it will come within 15.5 million miles (25 million kilometers), easily beating the current record of 27 million miles (43 million kilometers) set by NASA's Helios 2 spacecraft in 1976.

The mission is managed by the agency's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and was built, designed, managed, and operated by John Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Maryland.

Four suites of instruments will measure the sun's magnetic field, solar-wind speed and the density and temperature of wind particles.

The project, with a US$1.5 billion price tag, is the first major mission under NASA's Living With a Star program, Reuters noted. "The energy of that (launch) vehicle, the enormous size, and when you realize how tiny the Parker Solar Probe satellite is, and you have this big vehicle around it, it's just mind boggling".

Zurbuchen considers the sun the most important star in our universe - it's ours, after all - and so this is one of NASA's big-time strategic missions.

When it nears the Sun, the probe will travel at some 430,000 miles per hours - the fastest ever human-made object, fast enough to travel from NY to Tokyo in one minute.

"I'll bet you 10 bucks it works", Parker said.

Parker published research predicting the existence of solar wind in 1958, when he was a young professor at the University of Chicago's Enrico Fermi institute.

"She has to be able to look after herself", Fox said of the probe. It is one of the most powerful rockets now available. I'm sure that there will be some surprises.