NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will explore the sun’s atmosphere in a mission that is expected to launch early Saturday.
Although the probe itself is about the size of a car, a powerful rocket is needed to escape Earth’s orbit, change direction and reach the sun.
The launch window was chosen because the probe will rely on Venus to help it achieve an orbit around the sun.
“During summer, Earth and the other planets in our solar system are in the most favorable alignment to allow us to get close to the Sun.”
Preparing for a journey to the sunIt’s not a journey that any human can make, so NASA is sending a fully autonomous probe closer to the sun than any spacecraft has ever reached.
Understanding the sun in greater detail can also shed light on Earth and its place in the solar system, researchers said.
“We’ve been studying the Sun for decades, and now we’re finally going to go where the action is,” said Alex Young, solar scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in a statement.
In order to reach an orbit around the sun, the Parker Solar Probe will take seven flybys of Venus that will essentially give a gravity assist, shrinking its orbit over the course of nearly seven years.
Solar wind is the flow of charged gases from the sun, present in most of the solar system.
The mission’s objectives include “tracing the flow of energy that heats and accelerates the sun’s corona and solar wind, determining the structure and dynamics of the plasma and magnetic fields at the sources of the solar wind and explore mechanisms that accelerate and transport energetic particles.”
The Solar Probe Cup, dubbed “the bravest little instrument,” is a sensor that will extend beyond the heat shield to “scoop up samples” of the sun’s atmosphere, according to Justin Kasper, mission principal investigator and professor of climate, space sciences and engineering at the University of Michigan.
The cup will glow red when the probe makes its closest approach to the sun, sampling the solar wind and effectively touching the sun.
“The Alfvén point is the distance from the Sun beyond which the charged particles that make up the solar wind are no longer in contact with the surface of the Sun,” Kristopher Klein, co-investigator for the probe and University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Lab assistant professor, said in a statement.
“If the Parker Solar Probe can reach below the Alfvén point, then we can say the spacecraft has entered the solar atmosphere and touched the Sun.”
The first data download from the Parker Solar Probe is expected in early December, after the probe reaches its first close approach of the sun in November.
“Eventually, the spacecraft will run out of propellant,” said Andy Driesman, Parker Solar Probe project manager at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab.
“The solar probe is going to a region of space that has never been explored before,” Parker said.
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