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Set for red-hot voyage to Sun: All you need to know about NASA’s Parker Solar Probe

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will be the first spacecraft to “touch” the sun

world Updated: Aug 10, 2018 13:52 IST
Engineers perform light bar testing on NASA's Parker Solar Probe at the Astrotech processing facility. (AFP File Photo)

A red-hot voyage to the sun is going to bring us closer to our star than ever before. NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will be the first spacecraft to “touch” the sun, hurtling through the sizzling solar atmosphere and coming within just 3.8 million miles (6 million kilometers) of the surface.

THE NAME

The Parker Solar Probe is named after the 91-year-old pioneering solar astrophysicist Eugene Parker. This is the first time Nasa has named a mission after a living individual.

START TIME

The car-sized probe is already packed on to the Delta IV-Heavy rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and will take off on August 11.

THE PURPOSE

The Probe will come within 6.16 million km of the sun in the next few years, the closest a spacecraft has ever gotten to the Sun.

One of the reasons scientists are sending the probe is to learn about the Sun’s atmosphere and the weird property it exhibits - the heat from the star gets more intense further away from its surface.

Understanding how the corona works will help scientists anticipate dangerous space weather storms, which can disrupt the power grid on Earth.

A key question that the probe seeks to answer is how solar wind is accelerated, and for the first time, it will be able to look for answers at the source itself.

THE DURATION

The unmanned probe, over five decades in the making, will last nearly seven years and pass through the corona 24 times. With each orbit it will push closer and closer to the sun, ultimately circling the star at a distance of less than 10 radii.

It will then cross paths with Venus and fly within the orbit of Mercury, seven times closer to the sun than any other probe.

HOT AND HARSH

This means the probe will be in the sun’s atmosphere, a place where conditions can get pretty hot and harsh. The Sun-facing side of the probe will endure temperatures of about 1,370 degrees Celsius. The spacecraft is protected by a heat shield that will keep it close to room temperature, about 29 degrees Celsius.

THE SPEED

Speeding by at a pace of 430,000 miles per hour will make it “the fastest human-made object,” said project scientist Nicky Fox of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab.

SPECIFICATIONS

The probe is protected by a 4.5-inch-thick (11.43-centimeter) carbon-composite shield, built to withstand 500 times the Sun’s radiation on Earth. A series of instruments on board the spacecraft will measure the magnetic and electric fields, plasma waves and high energy particles.

There is also a white light imager, taking pictures of what the spacecraft is about to “plough through,” said Fox.

“The goal is to have the instruments on all the time but the prime science gathering for us is about 11 days,” she told reporters ahead of the launch.

(With agency inputs)

First Published: Aug 09, 2018 09:55 IST