Friday, 21 September, 2018

NASA counts down to launch of first spacecraft to 'touch Sun'

Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
Theresa Hayes | 11 August, 2018, 20:37

On Saturday, the space agency's Parker Solar Probe is expected to launch to orbit, beginning its long and winding journey that will eventually allow humanity to touch our nearest star for the first time. "Well, Parker Solar Probe's going to be in there", said project scientist Nicola Fox of Johns Hopkins University. Protected by a sophisticated heat shield the probe is created to go closer to the sun than any previous spacecraft.

"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.

Poking out over the heat shield, an instrument known as the Faraday cup will take measurements of the solar winds, a flow of ionised gases from the sun that streams past Earth at a million miles per hour.

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

To help the public visualize the incredible speed, NASA says something traveling that fast could go from Philadelphia to Washington DC in a single second.

In all, the spacecraft will make 24 elongated laps around the Sun, closer than the orbit of Mercury, the innermost planet. The first Venus flyby is in October, followed by the first dip into the sun's corona in November. The current close-to-the-sun champ, NASA's former Helios 2, got within 43 million kilometres in 1976.

"You know something exciting is just around the bend, but where you're sitting you can't see what that is", Fox said.

Image: The spacecraft can withstand enormous heat.

The car-sized probe, which will fly closer to the sun than any other man-made object, is set to blast off at 3:33am eastern daylight time (8:33am BST) from Cape Canaveral, Florida on August 11.

That's a relatively light spacecraft.

The Parker Solar Probe, named after American solar astrophysicist Eugene Parker, will, as the United States space agency describes it, "touch the sun" as it flies within 3.9 million miles of the star's surface.

We'll be going where no spacecraft has dared go before - within the corona of a star.

"With each orbit, we'll be seeing new regions of the sun's atmosphere and learning things about stellar mechanics that we've wanted to explore for decades".

This is a phenomenon that has baffled NASA scientists because the sun's atmosphere "gets much, much hotter the farther it stretches from the sun's blazing surface".