CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – A historic and daring mission to explore some of the sun's deepest secrets is underway.
NASA's Parker Solar Probe raised this morning (12 August) at 3:31 pm EDT (0731 GMT) From one station here at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the mighty United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy Rocket carves an orange arc of flame in the morning sky.
If all goes to plan, the Parker Solar Probe will travel faster than any craft ever and is unparalleled near the sun; in fact, it will fly through the outer atmosphere of our star, known as the corona. And the measurements the probe makes there will reveal important insights into the inner life of our star that scientists have missed for decades. NASA's Parker Solar Probe launches EDT (0731
"It's going to be phenomenal," NASA chief scientist Jim Green told Space.com. "We wanted to do this for 60 years since Eugene Parker got up and said, 'I think the sun is shining.'
This prediction was met with much skepticism in the 1950s, but time proved proven by Parker, a pioneering astrophysicist from the University of Chicago. We now know that outgassing is the solar wind, the stream of charged particles that is constantly flowing from the sun. And Parker, who turned 91 in June, was the first living human to ever have a NASA mission named after him.
Photos of Parker and a digital copy of his groundbreaking Solar Wind paper from 1958 fly on the newly launched spacecraft, on a memory card that also bears the names of more than 1.1 million people. These people, including Star Trek icon William Shatner, responded to NASA's invitation in March 2018 to kiss the Sun along with the Parker Solar Probe.
The start of this morning was originally scheduled to take place on July 31, but some technical issues pushed the attempt back to yesterday (August 11). And this attempt was thwarted after a Delta IV heavy gas-helium pressure alert was triggered less than 2 minutes before the scheduled launch.
Nothing compares to seeing a rocket launch live, Dr. Eugene N. Parker, who watched his first rocket launch this morning as his namesake spaceship, #ParkerSolarProbe Launched into the Sun. Watch: https://t.co/T3F4bqeATB pic.twitter.com/wYHucntNkK
– NASA (@NASA) August 12, 2018
Our Mysterious Star
The solar wind is very strong fast, zooms in between 900,000 miles per hour and 1.8 million miles per hour (1.45 million and 2.9 million km / h) when it reaches Earth orbit. But the particles start moving quite motionless on the solar surface, said Adam Szabo, a mission researcher at Parker Solar Probe, stationed at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
"Something happens on the gas pedal in the corona and shoots out at supersonic speed," Szabo Space.com said.
But scientists are not sure what this "something" is. The same is true for solar energetic particles (SEPs), even faster moving patches associated with solar flares and giant plasma bursts, so-called coronal mass ejections. It's not clear how SEPs – which pose a threat to astronauts and cause chaos in spacecraft software – can reach such tremendous levels of energy, Szabo said.
And the corona itself is deeply mysterious. Temperatures average between 1.8 million and 5.4 million degrees Fahrenheit – much warmer than the sun's surface, which is by comparison a pedestrian (5,500 degrees Celsius).
That makes no sense, at least not intuitive.
"They would expect things to cool down," Szabo said, as the distance from nuclear fusion increases. "That's one of those big unknowns: what's going on there?"
The sun's incredibly strong magnetic field and convective motion seem to work together to generate the energy that drives these phenomena, said Lika Guhathakurta, senior researcher for new initiatives. NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley and former head of Living With A Space Agency Star Program
"But how to bring this energy to the surface and spread it is the challenge," Guhathakurta told Space.com. "And that's why we have to go there and measure it." [The Sun’s Wrath: Worst Solar Storms in History]
Kissing the Sun
That's what the Parker Solar Probe will do. Over the next seven years, the $ 1.5 billion mission will make 24 near-by fly-bys in the sun, just 6.16 million kilometers from the sun's surface – far closer than the previous record holder, the German – American spacecraft Helios 2, which rose in 1976 to 43 million km.
During such tight passes – the first of which will be in early November – the Sun's strong gravity will accelerate the Parker Solar Probe speeds of around 430,000 mph (690,000 km / h), NASA officials said. This wipes out the 165,000 mph (265,000 km / h) mark set by NASA's Juno probe when it arrived at Jupiter in July 2016.
(The encounters will come closer and closer with time, the Parker Solar The probe will gradually reduce its elliptical orbit from about 150 Earth days to 88 Earth days, using seven "gravity-assisted" fly-bys of Venus The above-mentioned record numbers apply for the last fly-bys.)
Conditions in and around the next approach will be extreme; The Parker Solar Probe must withstand about 500 times the amount of sunlight we experience on Earth. And the sun-facing side of the spaceship is heated to about 1370 degrees Celsius according to NASA. (Most of this heat will come from sunlight, the roasted plasma in the corona is so thinly spread that it does not matter much.)
"It's going to be hammered," Green said.
To cope with the heat, the solar-powered probe is equipped with a 7.5 foot wide (2.3 meter), 4.5 inch thick (11.4 centimeter) shield made from advanced carbon composite material, which features the most of it holds the spacecraft's scientific instruments at a pleasant 85 degrees F (29 degrees C).
These instruments measure, among other things, the electric and magnetic fields and waves of the sun; observe super-energetic particles in the solar atmosphere and beyond; count and characterize solar wind particles; and photograph the corona and the inner regions of the heliosphere (the huge bubble of solar plasma and magnetic fields far beyond the orbit of Pluto).
The observations made with this device could help solve the puzzles of corona heating and particle acceleration, mission scientists have said. And it will give us a better idea of how the stars generally tick.
"How can we understand stellar systems if we do not understand the star next door?" Szabo said.
There should also be considerable practical applications, he stressed and others. For example, mission data should provide significant insights into space weather, potentially allowing researchers to better predict and plan the intense solar storms that can cause major disruptions here.
Such information could also help push humanity into the Solar System "We will be given the knowledge we need to leave behind the protective magnetic field of our planet," Guhathakurta said.
"There will be no review after this mission," she said.