Inside NASA’s ambitious Parker Solar Probe mission to ‘touch the sun’ in 2018
Later this year, NASA will embark on an ambitious mission that will involves a daredevil spacecraft flying closer to the sun than ever before.
Unveiled at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland last summer, the Parker Solar Probe will be about the size of a small car and will launch from Earth in June, heading through the sun’s atmosphere over the course of seven years with the help of gravity assists from Venus.
Now, NASA is inviting people to apply to have their name placed on a chip inside the probe so they can be part of the mission. NASA even got William Shatner to appear in a promotional video about the stunt. If you’d like to apply, submit your Hot Ticket application before 27 April.
“This probe will journey to a region humanity has never explored before,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This mission will answer questions scientists have sought to uncover for more than six decades.”
Parker Solar Probe
The spacecraft was named after physicist Eugene Parker, who in 1958 predicted the existence of the solar wind. Solar wind is made up of a stream of charged particles originating in the sun that permeates the solar system. Parker proposed a number of ideas about how stars give off energy and described plasmas, magnetic fields and energetic particles. Parker also suggested the sun’s corona is hotter than the surface of the sun itself, which was contrary to what was expected by laws of physics.
“It was a fundamental insight that forever changed the way in which we understood the sun, the heliosphere and in general interplanetary space,” said Eric Isaacs, from the University of Chicago, where Parker was also based.
Solar wind bombards the Earth, but we’re protected by our magnetic field. We know the sun’s gravity can’t hold onto these solar wind particles, but we don’t know where and how they are accelerated.
NASA’s mission will study how energy and heat move through the solar corona and explore what accelerates the solar wind to speeds of around a million miles per hour (400km/s).
The probe will fly as close as 3.9 million miles to the sun’s surface, more than seven times closer than any spacecraft has gone before. Its instruments will be protected from the sun’s heat by a 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite shield. It will travel at around 430,000mph on its closest approach – fast enough to get from Washington to Tokyo in under a minute.