NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is on a historic journey that will take it closer to the Sun, than any other man-made object has been before.
On August 12 at 3:31 am (0731 GMT), it had a successful lift-off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37 with help from the Delta IV Heavy rocket, as part of NASA’s Living with a Star programme.
The spacecraft will go past Venus in six weeks and make first contact with the Sun, another six weeks later.
Built by the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University, the mission of this historic spacecraft will be the first ever to observe a star closely while travelling through the Sun’s atmosphere, the corona.
Faster Than a Speeding Bullet
As announced by NASA, the aim of the spacecraft’s mission is to ‘touch’ the Sun – essentially being able to come within closest contact than any other space initiatives before.
The Parker Solar Probe has been configured to allow gravity assists from the planet Venus for seven times over the course of the nearly seven-year journey the probe has been scheduled to travel.
During its travel through space, the craft will come as close as 6.1 million kilometres away from the Sun’s surface, closer than any other spacecraft has ever been able to achieve.
Hurtling at a speed of up to 700,000 kmph, the speed of the Parker Solar Probe will be 15 times that of a speeding bullet.
Thus, able to fly close enough to view the solar wind speed change from subsonic to supersonic, the craft will fly through the birthplace of the highest-energy solar particles.
But, just why has this mission taken so long and has only become a reality as of recent times?
Why Won’t Parker Melt?
The answer lies in the spacecraft’s technological precautions.
Meant to revolutionise our understanding of the corona, the probe will be forced to endure extreme levels of radiation and heat.
Unlike its predecessor, the Parker Solar Probe and its instruments have been better equipped and suited for protection against the Sun’s heat all thanks to the 11.43 cm-thick carbon-carbon composite heat shield.
The front surface of the shield has been stated to be able to withstand the temperatures of up to approximately 1371 degree Celsius beyond the surface of the craft while the back surface of the shield has been stated to withstand up to 343 degree Celsius of heat.
Scientists have been boggled by what provides solar wind and solar energetic particles with momentum as well as how heat and energy travel through the corona.
With the aid of the latest progressions in thermal technology, the spacecraft is prepared for its journey.
On the Brink of Success & Failure
Its four instruments – the FIELDS suite, WISPR instrument, SWEAP and the ISʘIS suite
will image the solar winds and study plasma, energetic particles and even magnetic fields.
Thus, covering all possible aspects for the mission to collect the most amount of data currently possible.
However, there are still major risks that could cause the mission’s failure.
As this is the first attempt of any spacecraft in history to travel so closely to the Sun, there are still undiscovered and currently unknown factors that could complicate the mission.
Other already accounted risks would include the spacecraft failing to manoeuvre its way on September 28 to begin its pre-calculated plan to eventually enter its first of 24 orbits around the Sun on November 1.
But, with immense support from people across the world and the band of scientists behind this mission, this journey has already cemented its status as an exploration fuelled by un-paralleled determination to explore the universe.