NASA is About to Launch a Sun-Skimming Solar Probe

Artist’s concept of the Solar Probe Plus spacecraft approaching the sun. Pic Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

The United States space agency NASA is preparing to launch a probe on Saturday to study the Sun closer than any other human-made object before, revealing mysteries behind the fiery surface.

NASA is all set to launch its historic small car-size probe to "touch the Sun" from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 3.33 am EDT (1 pm India time) on Saturday.

How can the Sun's atmosphere, called the corona, reach temperatures exceeding a million degrees Celsius if the star's surface is "only" 6,000 C (10,800 degrees Fahrenheit)?

The Parker probe, which will venture the nearest ever to the Sun to study its atmosphere, will be launched on August 11th.

This weekend, in the dark hours before dawn, NASA plans to send a spacecraft to touch the sun. "It allows the spacecraft to operate at about room temperature". That's essentially what scientists have been doing with our solar system's sun - and for good reason - as it can reach more than 27 million degrees Fahrenheit. Again, close is a relative description, as Parker will make it to about 3.8 million miles from the Sun's surface, the closest it can be without being incinerated.

The tools on board will measure the expanding corona and continually flowing atmosphere known as the solar wind, which solar physicist Eugene Parker first described back in 1958.

"It was just a matter of sitting out the deniers for four years until the Venus Mariner 2 spacecraft showed that, by golly, there was a solar wind", Parker said earlier this week.

In an orbit this close to the Sun, the real challenge is to keep the spacecraft from burning up.

Before arriving at the sun, Parker will make seven Venus flybys in seven years, using the planet's gravity to get closer to the sun with each flyby.

A launch rehearsal conducted yesterday (Aug. 8) went smoothly, Baez said, and he will receive a final weather briefing tomorrow (Aug. 10) at about 10 p.m. EDT (0200 GMT on August 11) to determine whether to fuel up the rocket in hopes of targeting Saturday morning's launch window. It screams past Earth at a million miles per hour, and disturbances can cause disruptive space weather that impacts our planet.

Space scientists have spent decades trying to understand how energy moves through the corona and what drives the flow of charged particles that the sun continuously casts off. As lovely as the corona is, it represents a massive headache for astrophysicists and solar physicists.

After NASA announced the spacecraft would be named after him, Park said he is looking forward to seeing the science form the mission going to a region of space never before explored. Sixty years ago, the young astrophysicist proposed the existence of solar wind. Zurbuchen and Fox also presented Parker with NASA's distinguished public service medal.

The Parker Solar Probe will carry a chip with photos of Parker, his revolutionary paper and his message to the sun: "Let's see what lies ahead".

A related mechanism can accelerate protons from the sun to half the speed of light, turning them into projectiles that can damage spacecraft and satellites orbiting the Earth.

"We have ideas about what will be found, but the most important results may well come from observations that are completely unexpected", said Mark Wiedenbeck, a researcher at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and part of the ISOIS team.

"I will believe there is a successful launch when there is a successful launch", said Parker, who the mission is named after. We've looked at it.

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