Spacewatch: Firing up for a close encounter with the sun

An artist’s rendering of the Parker Solar Probe nearing the Sun

An artist’s rendering of the Parker Solar Probe nearing the Sun

At its closest approach, the spacecraft will fly less than 4 million miles (6 million kilometers) above the surface of the sun, directly through its blazing-hot atmosphere. You see, just like that whimsical fire, the corona glows far, far hotter than the furnace that is the Sun itself.

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.

But the Parker Solar Probe was built to do just that.

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.

"The solar corona is one of the last places in the solar system where no spacecraft has visited before", Parker Solar Probe scientist Adam Szabo said in a statement.

Six weeks after launch, the probe will encounter Venus' gravity for the first time. That stream of particles is now known as the solar wind.

Although the probe itself is about the size of a vehicle, a powerful rocket is needed to escape Earth's orbit, change direction and reach the sun. Although the mission is scheduled for seven years, we should get the first data readouts sometime in December.

To withstand the 2500-degree heat, scientists have developed a four-inch carbon shield to keep the instruments inside the $1.5 billion probe at room temperature.

The corona is also where the solar material is heated to millions of degrees and where the most extreme events on the Sun occur, such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections - accelerating particles to a fraction of the speed of light.

The mission will track how energy and heat move through the solar corona, as well as explore what accelerates the solar wind. While the previous NRL telescopes are on spacecraft either on lower Earth orbit or just outside of Earth's orbit, they are still getting fuzzy views of the Sun. The more different dynamics the probe can watch, the more scientists can learn about how our star really works.

In all, the spacecraft will make 24 elongated laps around the sun, closer than the orbit of Mercury, the innermost planet.

'This is an absolutely seminal moment for the physics of the Sun, ' says Valentin Martinez Pillet, director of the US National Solar Observatory, which is responsible for building the DKIST telescope.

The Parker probe will be able to identify how these solar winds are formed, and perhaps explain the mechanism that allows the particles to escape.

The mission dates back to a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal in 1958 by Dr. Eugene Parker, the mission's namesake. One would like to have some more detailed measurements of what's going on in the solar wind.

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