NASA to make closest approach yet to the Sun


The Parker Solar Probe to be launched in 2018 will make a closer approach than ever before to our nearest star, writes Andrew Masterson.


The corona of the Sun – a streaming aura of plasma given complex structure by the star’s magnetic field and extending millions of kilometres into space – is seen here during a total solar eclipse in 2008.
The corona of the Sun – a streaming aura of plasma given complex structure by the star’s magnetic field and extending millions of kilometres into space – is seen here during a total solar eclipse in 2008.
NASA / Miloslav Druckmüller

“Set the controls for the heart of the sun,” sang Pink Floyd in 1968 and next year, 50 years later, NASA is aiming to do almost that.

Announced this week, the space agency is planning to launch a probe in July 2018, and guide it into the sun’s corona, the enormous aura of blinding-hot plasma around the star that can reach temperatures of a million degrees Kelvin.

An artist’s impression of the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft approaching the sun.
An artist’s impression of the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft approaching the sun.
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

The probe will orbit about 6.5 million kilometres above the surface of the sun, and while that might not be precisely the sun’s heart, in Floydian terms, it is seven times closer to it than any other spacecraft has ever managed.

The craft, which will travel at 692,000 kilometres an hour to reach its destination, has been named the Parker Probe, in honour of solar astrophysicist Eugene Parker.

In 1958, Parker – then as now a professor at the University of Chicago – turned his attention to interplanetary gas and magnetic fields, uncovering the fluctuating streams of high-speed matter that blast out from the sun into the wider solar system.

Today these are referred to as “space weather” and have become a robust field of study across many disciplines. Solar weather is known to influence a large number of phenomena, including planetary atmospheres, asteroid orbits, electronic communications, aviation and even stock market transactions.

“This is the first time NASA has named a spacecraft for a living individual,” says Thomas Zurbuchen, of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

“It’s a testament to the importance of his body of work, founding a new field of science.”

Parker turns 90 this month. His eponymous probe is currently being constructed and tested by NASA. In particular, engineers are working to create an entirely new kind of heat shield, which will have to withstand temperatures of 1370 degrees Celsius.

Apart from no doubt prompting the reissue of an old British prog rock album, the Parker Probe will hopefully reveal the answers to many questions surrounding the nature and behaviour of the sun.

“It’s a spacecraft loaded with technological breakthroughs that will solve many of the largest mysteries about our star, including finding out why the sun’s corona is so much hotter than its surface,” says project scientist Nicola Fox.

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