Science - Close Encounters of the Solar Kind
Destination Sun: Parker Solar Probe set to begin its journey

The Northern Lights are an enchanting display of complex colors and patterns in the sky. It’s usually visible at night in the high-latitude regions of the earth; a result of ionization that occurs when the magnetosphere gets perturbed by Solar Winds. The mystery surrounding the emission of Solar Winds have always perplexed scientists, along with the massive ball of gas and plasma from which they originate. To help resolve this enigma, NASA has prepared its first-ever solar mission in history. Dubbed as the “Coolest Hottest Mission under the Sun”, the Parker Solar Probe is set to launch on 11th August, 2018, and is predicted to make its first pass around the Sun in November at a distance of just 15 million miles.

The $1.5 billion Parker Solar Probe is named after Eugene Parker, the University of Chicago scientist, who in 1958, first theorized the existence of Solar Winds. The spacecraft will undergo a total of 24 elliptical orbits around the sun during a span of seven years, utilizing the gravitational force of Venus at every pass, to propel itself a bit closer to the Sun. Towards the end of the mission, it’s poised to reach within a distance of 3.8 million miles from the Sun’s visible surface. In retrospect, the distance between the Sun and its closest planet, Mercury, is 48 million miles.

During each pass, the probe’s instruments will collect data and images of the sun’s atmosphere called “Corona”. By analyzing the data, NASA hopes to shed some light on the phenomenon of Solar Winds. Solar Winds are torrents of electrically charged particles emitted by the Corona. While responsible for the beautiful Northern Lights, they occasionally wreak havoc with power grids on earth’s surface and interfere with the functioning of earth’s satellite and onboard instruments. While the Wide-Field Imager for Parker Solar Probe, or WISPR, will photograph the large-scale structure of the corona, the Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons Investigation, or SWEAP, will measure the velocity, density and temperature of the particles making up Solar Winds. NASA hopes that such observational data will provide an insight into the behavior of solar winds and hopefully predict their patterns in the future.

So, how can the probe withstand such high temperatures without being destroyed? In order to endure the 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit that it’s estimated to be subjected to, the Parker Solar Probe is built with a four-inch thick, 160-pound carbon composite shield. In addition, the probe also possesses an effective cooling system, in the form of water-cooled solar panels, which could maintain temperature on the inside at 85 degrees. Finally, the instruments abroad the probe will be constructed with alloys that have very high melting points.

In addition to studying Solar Winds, the mission also hopes to answer several questions regarding the nature of the Sun. As one goes outwards from the surface of the sun towards the corona, the temperature quickly changes from 10,000 degrees to millions of degrees. This defies basic laws of physics, which states that temperature is usually higher near the source of the fire. So, why is the blazing corona several degrees hotter than its surface? While scientists hope to put an end to this query with data collected from WISPR, they could also map the Sun’s powerful electromagnetic field using the FIELDS instrument. Finally, the Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun, or ISOIS, can shed light on the origin of the Sun, and provide information regarding the birth and death of stars in the universe.

The probe will launch on top of a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket, from Cape Canaveral in Florida. It will be the 10th launch using the Delta IV Heavy, considered the second most powerful after SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy. The Parker Solar Probe is also estimated to reach a maximum speed of 430,000 mph, making it the fastest-ever human-made object. The highly ambitious mission has utilized the pinnacle of every technological front, in hopes of reaching the source of life – the Sun.