GREENBELT, Md. (CN) – NASA’s mission to touch the sun – or come as close as humanity has ever come before – is scheduled to launch on July 31, but on Wednesday at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, the craft at the heart of the mission got its last going over before being shipped to Florida.
The Parker Solar Probe is named in honor of Dr. Eugene Parker, the man who first proposed the existence of solar wind in 1958.
It is a feat of modern engineering and a craft that will travel into unprecedented territory. The delicate instruments inside of the probe will be protected by a mere 4.5-inch thick carbon composite shield that will be walloped by extreme temperatures.
The probe won’t land on the surface of the sun, but a vantage point 3.7 million miles above it, from which it will get the most intimate view of the sun’s corona ever.
The craft will orbit the sun 24 times over the course of its seven-year mission, at a speed of 450,000 miles per hour – fast enough to get from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. in just one second.
Throughout the mission, the probe will get periodic gravitational assists from the planet Venus, which members of the Parker mission crew described as being akin to gently applying a handbrake and keeping the craft on course.
Using autonomous measuring and imaging technology, the probe will collect data of solar flares and space weather, data that will tell scientists more than anyone has ever known about the phenomena and its impact on the Earth.
Nicky Fox, one of the mission’s project scientists, said Wednesday that while there are many worries about what can go wrong in a mission, the probe being decimated bya super-heated solar flare is not one of them.
“We have learned a lot,” Fox said of the probe’s heat shield technology. “What we’re really worried about is not seeing a solar flare. That’s why we’re up there. We want to get hit.”
Aboard the roughly 1,500-pound vessel, only one gallon of water makes up the probe’s entire cooling system.
Running “much like blood through veins,” Fox explained, the water will be maintained at an ideal 82 degrees with radiators pulling away heat from the cooling system. Outside the probe, the solar atmosphere will burn at about 3 million degrees.
NASA says beyond the pure science of the mission, it will also go a long way to helping ward off solar-flare related communications disruptions here on Earth.
The sun’s corona has always been a bit of a mystery. NASA hopes the probe will reveal some of its secrets like why solar wind exists at all and why the corona is so much hotter than the solar surface.
“The corona is 300 times hotter than the sun’s surface and that’s unique,” Fox said.
“When you walk away from a campfire, you don’t get warmer, you get colder,” she said, but the sun’s corona, which is further away from the surface, is hotter than the sun itself.
“Understanding this is the last piece of the puzzle to understanding the physics of the sun,” she said.
The information obtained on the mission will also help NASA understand the real impact of radiation on humans as they travel through space. The data compiled by Parker will used in future preparations for the first human space flight exploration to Mars.
“There have been a lot of hard moments over the last 10 years, but it’s been an amazing run,” said Betsy Congdon, the lead engineer for the probe’s thermal protection system. “You aren’t just engineering things, you are over-engineering them to make sure that they work.”
The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland manages the mission. The lab is also responsible for the probe’s design and construction.