Parker Solar Probe launches Saturday on mission to 'touch' the sun


In a story from Greek mythology, a clever craftsman named Daedalus was imprisoned in a tower for knowing too much.

In ancient Greek mythology, Icarus' newly crafted wings made him exceedingly bold and confident.

Luckily for astronomers and science enthusiasts everywhere, NASA has completely ignored this cautionary tale. And, over the course of a seven year mission, Parker will orbit the Sun two dozen times, with its final three orbits coming as close as 3.9 million miles from our star's surface. Its objective is to pass through the Sun's corona and study the complicated magnetic fields that surround it. It is equipped with a Northrup Grumman solid-fuel upper stage that will act to drop the Parker probe out of Earth's 18-mile-per-second orbit around the sun, allowing it to fall inward for the first of seven gravity assist flybys of Venus over a planned seven-year mission.

WISPR will look at the large-scale structure of matter spewing outward from the Sun as it approaches the probe, to compliment the detailed physical measurements of other instruments. The corona, however, is further away from the heat source, and should thus not be as hot. That hot plasma is the origin of the attractive aurorae - known in the Northern hemisphere as the Northern lights - seen in the frigid nights of the polar regions. And what powers the solar wind, the stream of charged particles that flows outward from the corona at speeds on the order of a million miles per hour?

"And last but not least, we have a white light imager that is taking images of the atmosphere right in front of the Sun".

The probe is created to fly through the outermost part of the sun's atmosphere. While the surface of the Sun is about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the corona burns at several million degrees! The corona is home to intense magnetic field lines that constantly tangle and reform.

The Wide-Field Imager for Parker Solar Probe (WISPR) is the only imaging device on board.

The fleet of heliophysics spacecraft and satellites, which observe and study the Sun and solar wind. But it can withstand 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,370 degrees Celsius) as well as extreme radiation, thanks to its high-tech carbon.

The heat shield is a sandwich of carbon-carbon composite surrounding almost four and half inches of carbon foam, which is about 97 percent air. Impressed with the probe? Never will a camera have come so close to the Sun.

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The solar array cooling system and on-board fault management system are also innovations of the probe.

Here's a brief description of some of the scientific questions the mission hopes to shed light on and the instruments it will use to do so.

"Launch teams are working on technical issues and weather is predicted to be 70 per cent chance of favourable conditions", NASA said in a tweet late on Thursday. How could the outer layers of the Sun be so much hotter than the interior?

The problem, NASA said, is how fast the Earth is moving as it orbits the sun: 67,000 miles per hour. The rocket has to be fired opposite the Earth's motion so it can counteract the Earth's orbital velocity.

The launch promises to be an exciting one, requiring about 55 times the energy needed to reach Mars.

Even with this powerful rocket, the probe will need some fancy orbital gymnastics to move into the desired orbit.

"We've been inside the orbit of Mercury and done fantastic things, but until you go and touch the sun, you can't answer these questions", said Nicola Fox, mission project scientist.

"NASA was planning to send a mission to the solar corona for decades, however, we did not have the technology that could protect a spacecraft and its instruments from the heat", said Szabo. Talk of such a solar probe, he said, "probably goes back at least 40 years".

I just wish that Icarus was around to see it.