Parker Solar Probe Mission: Humanity’s 1st visit to a Star

Parker Solar Probe Mission: Humanity’s 1st visit to a Star
Artist’s concept of the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft approaching the sun. The spacecraft will provide new data on solar activity and make critical contributions to human’s ability to forecast major space-weather events. (Image Courtesy: NASA)


NASA’s Parker Solar Probe Misson, launched on August 12, is touted to revolutionize the human understanding of the closest star to earth – The Sun. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the mission is named for Dr. Eugene N. Parker, whose profound contributions pioneered the modern understanding of the Sun. The spacegraft will plunge through the Sun’s atmosphere, facing brutal heat and radiation conditions—ultimately providing humanity with the first-ever samplings of a star’s atmosphere, it said.


The Journey: To unlock the mysteries of the Sun’s atmosphere, Parker Solar Probe will use seven Venus flybys over nearly seven years to gradually reduce its orbit around the Sun. The spacecraft will come close to 4% of the distance from the Sun to the Earth, well within the orbit of Mercury—and closer to the Sun’s surface than any spacecraft before it.


The Science of the Sun Flying into the part of the Sun’s atmosphere known as the corona for the first time and will employ four instrument suites designed to study electric and magnetic fields, plasma, and energetic particles, as well as image the solar wind.


NASA informed that mission will trace how energy moves through the solar corona and explore what accelerates the solar wind and solar energetic particles, enabling critical contributions to our ability to forecast changes in Earth’s space environment that impact life and technology on Earth. Among others, the mission will provide answers to long-standing questions that have puzzled scientists for more than 60 years:

• Why is the corona much hotter than the solar surface (i.e., the photosphere)?

• How is the solar wind accelerated?

• What are the sources of the high-energy solar particles?
These questions can be answered only by sending a probe right through the tenuous, multi-million-degree temperature coronal plasma.


Extreme Exploration: Parker Solar Probe will perform its scientific investigations in a hazardous region of intense heat and solar radiation. The spacecraft will fly close enough to the Sun to enter the highly magnetized corona, crossing the regions where solar energetic particles are accelerated. Such a probe is finally possible today through cutting-edge thermal engineering advances that can protect the spacecraft on its dangerous journey.


The spacecraft and instruments will be protected from the Sun’s heat by a 4.5-inch-thick (11.43-centimeter-thick) carbon-composite shield, which will need to withstand radiation equivalent to ~500 times the Sun’s radiation here on Earth. This shield is so effective that the instruments which lie in the umbra (shadow) are able to operate at a comfortable 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29 degrees Celsius). Only the electric field antennas and a small plasma detector will brave direct illumination from the Sun.


The Team: The mission is part of NASA’s ‘Living With a Star’ program to explore aspects of the Sun–Earth system that directly affect life and society. According to NASA website, it is managed by the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory implements the mission for NASA. Scientific instrumentation is provided by teams led by the Naval Research Laboratory, Princeton University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Michigan.


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