NASA Solar Probe Ready for Saturday Launch

Artist Rendering
Illustration of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe approaching the Sun.
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

(CN) – NASA will launch a solar probe Saturday that will fly closer to the Sun than ever before.

The Parker Solar Probe mission will use the gravity of Venus to get close to the Sun, and over the course of seven years and seven orbits the probe will fly about 3.8 million miles from the Sun’s surface – seven times closer than any spacecraft has done before.

The unmanned probe is scheduled to launch Aug. 11 from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. NASA’s mission is to learn more about solar wind, NASA said, and “will also make critical contributions to our ability to forecast changes in Earth’s space environment that affect life and technology on Earth.”

Named for scientist Eugene Parker, a University of Chicago scientist who discovered the origins of solar winds, the Parker Solar Probe will orbit close enough to the Sun to study subsonic and supersonic solar winds. The mission’s goals are to study how energy and heat pass through the solar corona and to learn what accelerates solar wind.

According to NASA, scientists have long sought answers to learn more about origins of solar winds and the particles that fly within them, but until now a probe that could withstand the heat was not available. A 4.5-inch carbon composite shield will protect the probe from temperatures upwards of 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

Parker Solar Probe sits in a clean room on July 6, 2018, at Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Florida, after the installation of its heat shield.
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

The solar probe will launch from a “Delta IV Heavy” rocket, and will jet around the Sun at around 430,000 miles per hour.

In the 1950s, Parker proposed new concepts about how stars, and the Earth’s sun, radiate energy. He termed this shower of energy the solar wind, and he theorized the system of plasmas, magnetic fields and energetic particles that make up the solar wind.

Parker also came up with an explanation for the solar corona, the superheated layer that is hotter than the surface of the Sun. His theory suggested that consistent but smaller solar explosions called nanoflares could cause this heating.

On the probe’s final three orbits the spacecraft will fly within 3.8 million miles of the Sun’s surface — seven times closer than the Helios 2, which travelled within 27 million miles of the Sun in 1976.

Live coverage of the Parker Solar Probe launch will start Aug. 11 at 3 a.m. Eastern.

It’s a busy month in space. Russian astronauts aboard the International Space Station will exit the station Aug. 15 for a nearly six-hour spacewalk, NASA said. Expedition 56 flight engineers Oleg Artemyev and Sergey Prokopyev of the Russian space agency Roscosmos are scheduled to exit the Pirs airlock at 11:58 a.m. Eastern.

And on Sept. 10, a Japanese rocket ship will be launched to deliver cargo to the International Space Station, arriving Sept. 14.


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