NASA set to launch probe to 'touch' sun

by Fredrick Graves August 12, 2018, 16:09
NASA set to launch probe to 'touch' sun

Why is it so hard?

When it nears the Sun, the probe will travel rapidly enough to go from NY to Tokyo in one minute - some 430,000 miles (700,000 kilometers) per hour, making it the fastest human-made object. The only way to get to the Sun is to cancel that sideways motion.

An illustration of the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft approaching the sun. The only way we can do that is to finally go up and touch the sun.

All systems are go as NASA prepares to launch a spacecraft that will travel closer to the Sun than ever before.

At 3:33 a.m. EDT on August 11, while most of the asleep, NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida will be abuzz with excitement. It is hoped that the Parker Solar Probe will teach scientists which idea is right. We've studied it from missions that are close in, and even as close as the planet Mercury, but we have to go there.

The car-sized Parker Solar Probe is scheduled to blast off on a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida early Saturday. About the size of a small auto, it weighs a mere 1,400 pounds.

"The sun is full of mysteries", said Nicky Fox, project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab.

"And it needs to be, because it takes an enormous amount of energy to get to our final orbit around the Sun", Driesman added. On Earth, this speed would enable someone to get from Philadelphia to Washington in one second, the agency said.

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. The probe will pass by Venus seven times, losing a little energy with each pass to settle down into its final orbit around the Sun.

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But getting so close to the Sun requires slowing down - for which Parker will use the gravity of our neighbor planet, Venus.

The spacecraft holds photos of Parker as well as a copy of his 1958 research paper on what he termed solar wind.

One of NASA's engineers, Betsy Congdon, has been working on this mission for 10 years, building an object that will fly dangerously close to the Sun. "Each time we fly by we get closer and closer to the Sun", Driesman added. The closest any other spacecraft has come was the Helios B probe, which came within 27 million miles on April 17, 1976. It's created to take solar punishment like never before, thanks to its revolutionary heat shield that's capable of withstanding 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,370 degrees Celsius). NASA predicts the shield will only reach temperatures of 2,500 degrees F. While on the other side of the 4.5-inch thick carbon shield, the body of the spacecraft will sit at a comfortable 85 degrees F. The Sun is the source of solar wind, also known as space weather, and can be extremely destructive to our environment on Earth.

Not only is the corona about 300 times hotter than the Sun's surface, it also hurls powerful plasma and energetic particles that can unleash geomagnetic space storms, wreaking havoc on Earth by disrupting the power grid. This will be seven times closer. As attractive as the corona is, it represents a massive headache for astrophysicists and solar physicists.

The corona is a "very unusual, unfamiliar environment for us".

Also on board: more than 1 million names of space fans submitted to NASA this past spring.

It's slated to arrive in about three months.

"For scientists like myself, the reward of the long, hard work will be the unique set of measurements returned by Parker", said Szabo. "It allows the spacecraft to operate at about room temperature". To give a sense of scale, the Curiosity probe sent to Mars was almost six times heavier.

Stay tuned - Parker is about to take flight.

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