NASA confirms plans to send a mission to the Sun
Of all the objects in our solar system, one of the most well-known and yet least understood is our own Sun. The star at the center of our solar system burns at 27 million degrees Fahrenheit, and staring directly at it for too long can leave you partially blind. It’s by its very nature a contradiction – it is the source of most life on the planet, and yet it is one of the most destructive forces in the universe.
So naturally, NASA is dying to go there.
In 2018, NASA will launch a probe aimed at the Sun. It will take time to reach its target, but once the spacecraft arrives it will enter the corona of the star before eventually settling into an orbit that puts it closer than Mercury. Even at a distance of millions of miles, the probe will be exposed to a constant barrage of temperatures in the thousands of degrees, but the information the probe gathers could be vital in helping us understand the nature of stars, and to prepare for potentially cataclysmic solar flares that might devastate our technologically dependent society.
It’s an important mission for both NASA and scientists of several disciplines that interact with the Sun in one form or another. To that end, NASA recently announced that the probe will be named the Parker Solar Probe in honor of astrophysicist Eugene Parker.
Parker is credited with the discovery of solar winds, a key factor in our understanding of the solar system and of stars. Prior to his discovery in 1958, space was believed to be a complete vacuum. While teaching at the University of Chicago, he published his initial findings only to have the scientific community reject his ideas. Thankfully, fellow astronomer and future Nobel Prize winner for Physics, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, believed Parker’s findings and lent an air of legitimacy to it.
Two years later, Parker’s findings were confirmed by satellite findings, fundamentally changing our understanding of the solar system. The 89-year old Parker went on to receive several prestigious awards and continues to contribute to the University of Chicago’s astronomical department.
The mission to the sun was initially announced in 2009 with a projected launch window of 2015, but delays have pushed it back to a tentative launch date of July 31, 2018. Once it is on the way to the Sun, it will first spend some time orbiting Venus; if everything goes to plan, it will reach Venus later n the year, with its closest approach to the planet tentatively set for September 27, 2018.
The probe will continue to orbit the sun and Venus, passing the planet roughly once a year and using its gravity to slingshot it back toward the Sun. It will then reach orbital insertion around the Sun on December 19, 2024. At its closest, the probe will be roughly 3.7 million miles from the surface, but the temperatures will be extreme, reaching upwards of 2500 degrees Fahrenheit. To combat this, the probe will be covered in four and a half inches of carbon solar shielding. It will orbit the Sun at 450,000 mph, and after six years and 321 days, its planned mission will be complete.
The larger goal is to provide us with a new understanding of the Sun and from that a better understanding of the nature of stars throughout the universe. In a more practical sense though, the probe will give us a better understanding of solar flares. A strong solar flare could potentially act like an electromagnetic pulse, wiping out all electronic equipment in its path. A strong enough flare could, in theory, wipe out power in parts of America for a year and cost $2 trillion in damage.
Given how sophisticated and complex the equipment being launched is, another delay wouldn’t be shocking. At the moment, however, things are on track.