NASA's solar probe starts closest-ever approach to Sun

Audrey Hill
August 15, 2018

The probe will investigate two key questions about solar physics: How does the solar wind start and attain speeds of as much as 1.8 million miles per hour?

An artist's rendering of the Parker Solar Probe approaching the Sun.

You can watch a livestream of the launch here. Aram....what's the latest? Well Mark...after a one-day delay, NASA's Parker Solar Probe successfully lifted off on Sunday from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and is now on its way to the Sun. NASA's broadcast starts at 3AM.

"We've been inside the orbit of Mercury and done unbelievable things, but until you go and touch the sun, you can't answer these questions", said Nicola Fox, mission project scientist. That's why it needs to take off so early in the morning; at 3:30AM, the launchpad is pointed in the right direction to get to Venus. By October, it is expected to have reached Venus.

Knowing more about the solar wind and space storms will also help protect future deep space explorers as they journey toward the Moon or Mars.

The Parker Solar Probe is equipped with four instrument suites to measure plasma, magnetic and electrical fields and energetic particles, and to image the regions the spacecraft is about to fly through.

It's not like our scientists are no interested in the sun. "The energy of that (launch) vehicle, the vast size, and when you realize how tiny the Parker Solar Probe satellite is, and you have this big vehicle around it, it's just mind boggling".

Nothing from Planet Earth has ever hit that kind of speed.

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Eugene Parker was an astronomer at the University of Chicago in the 1950s. Among the puzzlers: Why is the corona hundreds of times hotter than the surface of the sun and why is the sun's atmosphere continually expanding and accelerating, as Parker accurately predicted in 1958? These thrusters have been used on a number of NASA exploration probes, including New Horizons, now en route to a Kuiper Belt object following its encounter with Pluto. Parker compared the phenomenon to the way water spray in a fountain. He and other scientists designed an instrument called the solar probe cup.

"Our thrusters on NASA's Parker Solar Probe are the same model as those that helped steer the New Horizons spacecraft toward its historic Pluto flyby and continue to operate in the farthest and coldest reaches of the solar system", said Drake. Spacecrafts aren't normally named after living people, but astrophysicists say that Parker is a "celebrity" in the field.

As soon as this fall, the Parker Solar Probe will fly straight through the wispy edges of the sun's corona, or outer atmosphere, that was visible during last August's total solar eclipse.

Q: What data will the probe be collecting, and what insights are scientists ultimately hoping to gain from these data?

If all works as planned, the inside of the spacecraft should stay at just 29°C. But due to a technical snag, the launch date was delayed and scheduled on Sunday, Aug. 12, at 3:31 a.m. EDT (0731 GMT) during a window that will remain open for 65 minutes.

You can see updates about the rocket, and find more information about its specifications, here.

Parker Solar Probe will set its sights on the corona to solve long-standing, foundational mysteries of Sun, the US-based space agency said.

A trio of first-stage boosters fired hydrogen-fueled engines to light up the night sky above Launch Complex 37, unleashing 2.1 million pounds of thrust to begin the probe's seven-year mission. Here it will directly explore solar processes that are key to understanding and forecasting space weather events that can impact life on Earth.

Other reports by MaliBehiribAe

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