How NASA protects its solar probe from the Sun

Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

NASA's Parker Solar Probe will be the first spacecraft to "touch" the sun, hurtling through the sizzling solar atmosphere and coming within just 3.8 million miles of the surface.

The spacecraft launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and will be hitching a ride on board United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy rocket, which has an added third stage and is all geared up for a speedy liftoff.

Guarding the spacecraft and its four instruments against temperatures, reaching 2,500 degrees, is a 4.5-inch thick carbon-composite shield.

"The Thermal Protection System (the heat shield) is one of the spacecraft's mission-enabling technologies", said Andy Driesman, Parker Solar Probe project manager at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab.

One science task of the probe is to study the acceleration of the solar wind and the Sun's constant outflow of material, while the other is exploring the secret of the corona's enormously high temperatures, said NASA. The probe was named after legendary American astrophysicist Eugene Parker who, in the 1950s, contributed significantly to our understanding of the environment in space surrounding the Sun.

NASA selected ULA´s Delta IV Heavy for its unique ability to deliver the necessary energy to begin the Parker Solar Probe´s journey to the sun. "The solar corona is one of the last places in the solar system where no spacecraft has visited before".

"Well, Parker Solar Probe's going to be in there", said project scientist Nicola Fox of Johns Hopkins University.

The details of the Parker Solar Probe's protective heat shield.


During its nominal mission lifetime of just under seven years, Parker Solar Probe will complete 24 orbits of the Sun - reaching within 3.8 million miles of the Sun's surface at closest approach.

"To the extent that we can understand why the solar wind works the way that it does, we hope that that will allow us to predict these kinds of events better than we can today", Halekas said. Solar wind can reach speeds of 1.8 million miles per hour - but how the particles are accelerated to such speeds remains a mystery.

The probe will be the first spacecraft to pass through the Sun's corona, the outermost part of the sun's atmosphere.

Before arriving at the sun, Parker will make seven Venus flybys in seven years, using the planet's gravity to get closer to the sun with each flyby. Parker's theory of solar wind, created by charged particles from the sun, was later proven with data from NASA's Mariner 2 mission to Venus. Missions such as the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and the twin Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) spacecraft keep a constant watch for sunspots, solar flares, coronal holes and CMEs. When they reach the Earth, most particles are deflected by the earth's magnetic field.

The Parker probe will get so close that the pressure from mere sunlight will be enough to flip the spacecraft around in less than a minute, Kasper said. At the time, astronomers believed that the space between planets was a vacuum.

The Parker Solar Probe will carry a chip with photos of Parker, his revolutionary paper and his message to the sun: "Let's see what lies ahead". While granting us life, the sun also has the power to disrupt spacecraft in orbit, and communications and electronics on Earth.

The Parker Solar Probe is quite small, about the size of a small auto, and it weighs about 1,500 pounds. I'm sure that there will be some surprises.

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