After a last-minute technical snag delayed its highly-anticipated Saturday launch, NASA’s $1.5 billion Parker Solar Probe mission finally got underway early this morning (Sunday, Aug 12) at 3:31 a.m. EDT (0731 GMT).
Sitting atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket, the car-sized Parker Solar Probe blasted off into a pre-dawn Florida sky on a seven-year mission that will take it deep into the sun’s atmosphere, the corona.
— NASA (@NASA) August 12, 2018
Six weeks from now, Parker is expected to zip past Venus, and in the following six weeks it should be able to reach that point in the sun’s corona where its seven-year-long mission around the sun is supposed to begin.
The instrument-loaded Parker will orbit the sun 24 times during that period, collecting important scientific data and beaming it back to earth, as early as December this year.
If all goes well, researchers should have ample data by the end of the longish mission – not in space terms, though – to begin understanding the mysterious workings of our star, something that the scientific community has devoted decades towards.
Data such as 3-D images, electric and magnetic field recordings, and high-energy particle catalogs, to mention a few, will go a long way in helping them find long-elusive answers to most of their questions about the sun and its corona.
It should, and probably will, enable scientists to safeguard spacecraft, astronauts, and sensitive ground equipment through improved space weather forecast, and much more, in times to come.
“It’s of fundamental importance for us to be able to predict this space weather, much like we predict weather here on Earth,” says NASA solar scientist Alex Young of the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
“In most extreme cases of these space weather events, it can actually affect our power grids here on Earth,” he said.
All that data “is going to answer a lot of questions that we couldn’t answer in any other way,” says Craig DeForest, a heliophysicist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of anticipation,” DeForest, who is not involved in the mission in any capacity said sometime back.
Parker will be hurtling through the corona at speeds of up to 435,000 miles per hour (700,000 km/h), which is going to be, by far, the fastest any spacecraft (manmade) has ever achieved – if, or better still, when it does happen.
According to NASA, Voyager 1, which has been zipping through space since 1977, is currently moving at around 38,000 miles per hour (61,000 km/h), which doesn’t even make ten percent of Parker’s top speed.
It’s hard to even imagine being able to reach Tokyo all the way from D.C. in under a minute if we were to achieve Parker’s peak speed on Earth, but the team behind the solar probe mission is pretty much nonchalant about the whole thing.
At a NASA news conference on August 9, Parker Solar Probe project manager Andrew Driesman, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory said:
“Designing something to go fast in space is pretty much the same as you would design it to go slow in space; space has nothing to really impede its progress.”
He added: “The spacecraft doesn’t know it’s going fast.”
Not only is Parker expected to achieve that record-shattering speed during the course of its multiple revolutions around the sun, it should also be able to get within 3.83 million miles of the star’s fiery surface – which is the closest it will get to it during its 7-year spin, creating yet another record.
The nearest that any spacecraft has ever got was a probe called Helios 2, which was able to make it to within 27 million miles, or 43 million kilometers, of the sun, way back in 1976.
The kind of temperatures that Parker will be exposed to during its sun sojourn will reach a whopping 1,370 degrees Celsius, or 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, and that’s where the probe’s recently fitted state-of-the-art heat shield comes into play.
Called the Thermal Protection Unit (TPU), the heat shield measures eight feet in diameter and is designed to protect everything that lies within its umbra – the shadow it casts on the probe.
NASA describes the 160-pound TPU as a heat shield “made up of two panels of superheated carbon-carbon composite sandwiching a lightweight 4.5-inch-thick carbon foam core.”
Also, the side that will be exposed to all that heat has been “sprayed with a specially formulated white coating to reflect as much of the Sun’s energy away from the spacecraft as possible.”
Part of NASA’s LWS (Living with a Star) program, the Parker Solar Probe will, basically, explore those facets and characteristics of the sun that are directly related to our planet, influencing life and society.
While the LWS is managed by Goddard for the Heliophysics Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C., the Parker Solar Probe program is overseen by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, on behalf of NASA.
Not to be left out of the race, European Space Agency (ESA) will launch its own sunward-bound Solar Orbiter sometime in 2020, which will beam direct images of the sun’s poles.
Combining the data from the two spacecraft, providing different perspectives of the sun, will enable scientists to understand “how the solar wind varies at different latitudes,” says NASA.
After Parker has completed its 24-orbit mission around the sun, it is expected to have some leftover fuel to continue along for some time, until it is unable to fire its thrusters that keep the shielded side towards the sun, says project scientist Nicola Fox, who’s also a heliophysicist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
With its unprotected part exposed to the merciless heat and radiation, Parker will start disintegrating into large pieces, which will get increasingly smaller until there’s nothing left but dust across the sun’s corona.