On August 12, 2018, NASA launched the Parker Solar Probe, beginning an exciting mission to fly faster and get closer to the sun than any spacecraft in history.
Unlike the James Webb Space Telescope whose pending mission lies 1 million miles outside our solar system, the Solar Probe, traveling at speeds in excess of 400,000 MPH, should reach a point just over 15 million miles from the sun’s surface by November of this year. Using Venus to slow itself down and target its orbits more carefully, the probe will get increasingly closer-within 3.9 million miles-but not until December, 2024. The ultimate goal is to complete 24 orbits of the sun over a 7 year period.
This compact spacecraft–about the size of a small car–will use a “suite” of instruments, to collect images of the solar atmosphere, capture information about its electric and magnetic fields, measure the range of energies of the electrons, protons, and helium ions while taking up to 146 measurements per second to accurately determine the velocity, density and temperature of the Sun’s plasma.
The Many “Firsts” of the Probe
The Probe is not only being heralded as the fastest spacecraft in history and one that will come closest to the sun, it is also the first to be named after a living person, Eugene Parker, the first physicist to predict solar winds. According to the NASA website:
In the mid-1950s, a young physicist named Eugene Parker proposed a number of concepts about how stars — including our sun — give off energy. He called this cascade of energy the solar wind, and he described an entire complex system of plasmas, magnetic fields and energetic particles that make up this phenomenon. Parker also theorized an explanation for the superheated solar corona, which is — contrary to what was expected by then-known physics laws — hotter than the surface of the sun itself. His theory suggested that regular, but small, solar explosions called nanoflares could, in enough abundance, cause this heating.
The probe is also carrying a unique microchip, containing the names of over 1.1 million people who wanted to send their name to the sun!
Not the Wax Wings of Icarus
In Greek mythology, Icarus was the son of the master craftsman Daedalus who used wax and feathers to fashion wings for them both to escape the island of Crete. Ignoring his father’s warning, Icarus flew “too close to the sun” which caused the wings to melt, casting him to his death in the sea.
Though scientists have wanted to study the sun more closely for decades, the mission of flying “too close to the sun” would not be possible without recent advances in materials science.
The heat shield of the probe is made of a 4.5-inch thick carbon composite foam material between two carbon fiber face sheets and can withstand 2500* F while maintaining a cool 85* F on the side away from the corona’s blast of heat.
“Humanity’s First Visit to a Star”
Scientists are hoping that the data collected by this mini workhorse will revolutionize our understanding of the sun’s corona where solar flares and coronal mass ejections can hurl high energy particles at the earth, interfering with GPS and communications satellites and our power grid. As stated in an overview of its mission:
The primary science goals for the mission are to trace how energy and heat move through the solar corona and to explore what accelerates the solar wind as well as solar energetic particles.
According to NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchan, however, the implications of this mission far exceed studying only how the Sun affects the earth:
This mission truly marks humanity’s first visit to a star that will have implications not just here on Earth, but how we better understand our universe. We’ve accomplished something that decades ago, lived solely in the realm of science fiction.
As Pope Benedict reportedly said to the astronomers at the Vatican Observatory, “Go to the frontiers!”
The Parker Solar Probe is daring to go to the last frontier within our solar system.
Let us pray for its success!
Maggie Ciskanik is a regular contributor to the Magis Center blog.