Last updated August 13, 2018 at 1:57 pm
The Parker Solar Probe is heading to the sun after launching over the weekend.
Hours before the rise of the very star it will study, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe launched from Florida to begin its journey to the Sun.
Once there, its observations will help researchers improve their forecasts of space weather events, which have the potential to damage satellites and harm astronauts on orbit, disrupt radio communications and, at their most severe, overwhelm power grids.
Science Fiction made real
“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,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
“We’ve accomplished something that, decades ago, lived solely in the realm of science fiction.”
There to watch watch the launch of the mission that carries his name was physicist Eugene Parker. Parker first theorized the existence of the solar wind, the Sun’s constant outflow of material, in 1958.
It’s the first NASA mission to be named for a living researcher, and the probe carries a plaque with a quote from Parker – “Let’s see what lies ahead.”
After the successful launch, Parker has deployed its solar panels and is collecting its own energy.
For the next two months it will fly towards Venus where it will perform a gravity assist, using the planet’s gravity to whip the spacecraft into a tighter orbit around the Sun.
Its first orbit will take it to within 25 million kilometres from the Sun, far closer than anything has travelled before. While this distance is within the corona, over its seven-year mission it will make 23 more passes of the Sun, getting closer and closer until it reaches a distance of just 6 million kilometres. During this closest pass Parker will be travelling around 700,000 kilometres per hour, the fastest moving human-created object ever.
This close to the Sun is, obviously, a brutal place – hostile enough that any electronics getting as close as the Parker Probe would normally be immediately fried. However, the probe is packing a 11.5cm-thick carbon-composite shield, which will withstand temperatures up to 1400° Celsius.
The shield is so effective the instruments on board will remain at room temperature.
The spacecraft will transmit its first science observations in December, with scientists hoping to solve long-standing mysteries of our Sun. These include just why the corona is 300 times hotter than the surface of the Sun, and what processes drive the supersonic solar wind of solar material that blows through the entire solar system.
After 60 years since Parker’s revolutionary theory, scientists are finally able to take a close look.