LAUREL, Md — NASA’s on a mission to “touch” the sun.
The unmanned Parker Solar Probe, which is slated for liftoff next year, will be mankind’s first-ever visit to our nearest star.
The probe “will travel through the sun’s atmosphere, closer to its surface than any spacecraft before it, facing brutal heat and radiation conditions — and ultimately providing humanity with the closest-ever observations of a star,” NASA said in a statement.
The spacecraft, which was recently on display for media at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Maryland, will explore the sun’s outer atmosphere and make observations that will answer decades-old questions about the physics of how stars work.
The $1.6-billion mission aims to improve forecasts of major space weather events that impact life on Earth, as well as astronauts in space, NASA said. Space weather can also change the orbits of satellites, shorten their lifetimes, or interfere with onboard electronics.
“Parker Solar Probe is going to answer questions about solar physics that we’ve puzzled over for more than six decades,” said project scientist Nicola Fox of the APL.
The probe will fly through the sun’s atmosphere as close as 3.9 million miles to the star’s surface, well within the orbit of Mercury.
The project was first considered in 1958, making it the oldest NASA project still on the books, said Betsy Congdon, an aerospace engineer on the project. The challenge, she said, has always been how to protect such a craft from the sun’s intense heat.
Cutting-edge thermal engineering advances allowed the creation of a 4.5-inch thick, eight-foot diameter carbon shield that protects the spacecraft and its instruments against the heat and energy of the sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, through which the spacecraft will fly.
At closest approach to the sun, the front of the probe’s solar shield will endure temperatures approaching 2,500 degrees F.
Six on-board instruments will measure the sun’s electric and magnetic fields, as well as the solar winds and other phenomena.
The heat shield was recently attached to the satellite, in preparation for an upcoming brutal regimen of testing at the APL and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. That testing will include extremes of vibration, heat, cold and sound, all to ensure the craft can withstand the rough conditions during the 8-minute launch and also the extreme temperatures of space.
The launch window for lift off will be from July 31, 2018, to Aug. 19, 2018. It will blast off inside a Delta IV rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The mission is expected to include 24 orbits around the sun, over a period of 7 years.
Once in orbit around the sun, it will also break the record for fastest man-made object ever invented, with top speeds estimated at 500,000 mph. That’s fast enough to get from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., in one second.
The mission was named after Eugene Newman Parker, a physicist who proposed a number of concepts about how stars give off energy. The probe will be the first NASA project named for a living scientist. Parker, 90, recently visited the craft that bears his name.