Majority of the historic moments in space science in the past five years or so have mostly focused on what lies beyond our own planet, from Mars to Jupiter to Pluto and beyond. Few have actually looked inward into the titular and literal center of our solar system: the Sun. As of August 12, 2018, however, NASA, together with the United Launch Alliance (ULA), is changing that with the launch of the Parker Solar Probe that will hopefully unravel the mysteries of the sun in the next seven years.
It’s not like our scientists are no interested in the sun. It is, after all, part of what makes life on Earth possible and also the cause of many problems both on land and in space. It’s just that interest and curiosity had to be tempered by common sense and patience. It took more than sixty for man to reach a level of thermal engineering technology to make sure that the probe won’t burn out too soon before it finishes its job.
The Parker Solar Probe is the size of a small car and launched onboard a ULA Delta Iv heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida. For the first few weeks, it will be deploying its high-gain antenna and magnetometer boom. Instrument testing will begin in September and will last for about a month. By October, it is expected to have reached Venus.
Of course, it won’t be flying straight into the sun. It will instead be using Venus’ gravity to trim its orbit tighter around the sun. Over seven years, it is expected to make six Venus flybys, 24 passes by the Sun, and get as close as 3.8 million miles from the sun. It will then be moving at 430,000 miles per hour, making it the fastest man-made moving object in history.
More than just making history, Parker will try to help scientists answer the most pressing questions related to the sun, like why it’s corona is 300 times hotter than its surface and how its solar energy particles can sometimes travel more than half the speed of light. Findings will help improve space weather forecast, protect satellites and astronauts in orbit, as well as harden our own power grids here on Earth. And speaking of making history, the Parker Solar Probe is the first NASA mission to be named after a scientist who is actually still alive, physicist Eugene Parker who, in 1958, theorized the existence of solar winds.