NASA’s Parker Solar Probe Mission: Travelling to the Sun

NASA’s historic Parker Solar Probe project will transform our understanding of the Sun. It has traveled through the Sun’s upper atmosphere, closer to the surface than any spacecraft before it, surviving extreme heat and radiation offering humanity the most detailed measurements of a star ever made.

                  Credits: NASA’s Image of Parker Solar Probe

                       

AIM

The Parker Solar Probe will look into the structure and dynamics of the Sun’s coronal plasma and magnetic field, the energy flow that heats the solar corona and propels the solar wind, and the mechanisms that speed up energetic particles.

STRUCTURE

The incident radiation at the perihelion is close to 650 kW/m2 or 475 times the intensity at Earth. Unique design and materials are incorporated to keep the systems safe from the extreme heat and radiation near the Sun. A hexagonal solar shield is mounted on the Sun-facing side of the spacecraft, 2.3 m in diameter and 11.4 cm in thickness. It is made of reinforced carbon-carbon composite, designed to survive scaling temperatures as high as 1370 °C.

Heatshield was installed on June 27, 2018.
Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

A white reflective alumina surface layer reduces absorption. The spacecraft systems are positioned in the shield’s central shadow portion, where direct solar radiation is completely blocked. The probe would be damaged and rendered inoperable in tens of seconds if the shield between the spacecraft and the Sun was not present. The Parker Solar Probe will have to operate autonomously and quickly to safeguard itself because radio communication with Earth will take roughly eight minutes in each way. Four light sensors will be used to detect the first signs of direct sunlight coming from the shield limits, and reaction wheels will be used to relocate the spacecraft back into the darkness. According to project scientist Nicky Fox, the team describes it as “the most autonomous spacecraft that has ever flown.


 Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, 
 Florida.Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

LAUNCH

The spacecraft was planned and built by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and launched on August 12, 2018. It’s the first NASA mission to be named after a living person, nonagenarian physicist Eugene Newman Parker, who is an emeritus professor at the University of Chicago. The probe was launched on a Delta IV Heavy class launch vehicle with an upper stage based on the Star 48BV solid rocket motor due to the trajectory’s high launch energy requirements.


TRAJECTORY

The Parker Solar Probe mission concept employs repeated gravity assistance at Venus to gradually lower its orbital perihelion until it reaches a final height (above the surface) of around 8.5 solar radii.  For roughly seven years, the spacecraft will swing past Venus seven times, shrinking its elliptical orbit around the Sun to a total of 24 orbits. The near-Sun radiation environment is expected to induce spacecraft charging effects, radiation degradation in materials and electronics, and communication disruptions. So the orbit will be very elliptical with a short time spent near the Sun. The probe will acquire speeds of up to 200 km/s as it orbits the Sun, making it the fastest human-made object for the time being, nearly three times faster than the previous record-holder, Helios-2.


CONCLUSION

It’s also possible that we haven’t even considered the most significant discoveries yet. It’s difficult to say how addressing coronal heating will impact our perception of the universe, but fundamental discoveries like these have the potential to transform science and technology forever. The Parker Solar Probe’s journey takes human curiosity to an area of the solar system that has never been explored before, where every observation could lead to a new discovery.

Author

  • Aspiring to become a space scientist, I am majoring in mechanical engineering. When enough watching science fiction, I go on exploring people and places or play music in the dusk.

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