For the first time, NASA will launch a spacecraft directly headed towards the sun. It is the case of Solar Probe Plus, expected to launch no later than summer 2018.

The probe will sustain temperatures higher than any other that a spacecraft has been exposed to.

For the first time, NASA will launch a spacecraft directly headed towards the sun. Image credit: Tes Teach
For the first time, NASA will launch a spacecraft directly headed towards the sun. Image credit: Tes Teach

Solar Probe Plus is set to explore the solar atmosphere and gather data on our nearest star. Shortly after the announcement, the spacecraft was renamed to become the Parker Solar Probe, as an homage to astrophysicist Eugene Parker, who developed the theory of solar winds. It is the first time NASA names a mission after a living person, in this case, Parker, who will turn 90 years old on June 10.

Reach for our closest star

The announcement was made at the University of Chicago, where Parker serves as S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Back in 1958, Eugene Parker proposed that there had to be magnetic waves around the sun and that they should have measurable effects on its neighboring planets. This phenomenon would be later referred to as solar winds, whose existence has repeatedly been confirmed. Thanks to Parker’s observations, astrophysicists were able to learn how stars affect the planets that surround them.

Parker is the theorist that first proposed how stars are comprised of plasma, energy particles, and magnetic fields. He also first described the corona, a section of the solar atmosphere that’s even hotter than the sun surface.

The probe will be the first opportunity held by humanity to explore and study the sun from up close.

“It’s very exciting that we’ll finally get a look. One would like to have some more detailed measurements of what’s going on in the solar wind. I’m sure that there will be some surprises. There always are,” stated Thomas Zurbuchen, from NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

The Parker Solar Probe will pass 4 million miles above the sun’s surface. So far, astronomers are not so sure as to why the corona is much hotter than the solar surface, mainly because the only way to obtain the so-needed data is by sending a probe directly at the sun.

The idea comes from a proposal made in 1958 by the National Academy of Sciences, as researchers need to know how and why solar winds become faster. Furthermore, there is a need to understand the fundamental physics of the sun’s atmosphere.

The probe will be covered by a 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite shield, able to sustain temperatures of up to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

One of the instruments currently installed on the Parker Solar Probe is the EPI-Lo particle detector. According to project managers, the device turns the probe into an observatory. EPI-Lo will study low-energy particles expelled from the sun, which will reveal how energy particles become accelerated in the heliosphere, which reaches from the corona up to Mercury’s orbit.

“Measuring the energetic particles near the sun, and flying an entire suite of instruments on such a Solar Probe is an exciting event in science almost 60 years in the making,” stated Ralph McNutt, leader of EPI-Lo measurements in the project.

Source: NASA