University of Iowa physicist has a hand in mission to the sun

The spacecraft will use seven Venus flybys over nearly seven years to gradually shrink its orbit around the sun. Pic John Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab

NASA managers have cleared the $1.5 billion Parker Solar Probe for launch early Saturday on a daring mission to "touch the sun". If all goes as planned, it will lift off aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral on August 11, with a 65-minute launch window beginning at 3:33 am EDT.

At Parker Solar Probe's closest approach to the Sun, temperatures on the heat shield will reach almost 1,371 degrees Celsius, but the spacecraft and its instruments will be kept at a relatively comfortable temperature of about 29.4 degrees Celsius. The car-sized spacecraft boasts a 4.5-inch thick thermal shield made of carbon composite materials that will keep the interior at a balmy 85 degrees.

This mission will study the dynamics of the sun's magnetic fields, which mechanisms heat the corona, and what accelerates solar winds.

The Parker Solar Probe will be studying the sun through 2025.

Over roughly seven years following its launch, the probe will use the gravity of Venus to assist it as it pulls closer and closer to the Sun, until it reaches a distance of around 6.25 million kilometres from the Sun's "surface".

"The coolest, hottest mission, baby, that's what it is", said Nicola Fox, the project scientist at Johns Hopkins University.

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

"But the day we go to Mars, we'll need to be able to predict solar eruptions of these particles, which can be deadly", he told AFP. Somewhere in the Sun's corona - the source of glow that you can see during a total solar eclipse - these particles can reach supersonic speeds and are collectively called the solar wind. The $1.5-billion, car-sized spacecraft is created to provide a close look at the sun's atmosphere - what astronomers call the corona - to answer enduring questions about this ultra-hot region of our nearest star. The first Venus flyby is in October, followed by the first dip into the sun's corona in November.

"That's the big question: what's heating the solar corona?", said Thierry Dudok de Wit, an astrophysicist at France's National Centre for Scientific Research. For perspective, Earth is about 93 million miles from the center of our solar system.

Solar wind is the flow of charged gases from the sun, present in most of the solar system. When the particles are spewed toward Earth with sufficient strength, the effect can disrupt radio communications, harm satellites, and in extreme cases, interfere with power grids. By operating so close to the Sun, it will be passing through an environment with enormous radio interference.

Before Parker, the record-holder for closest solar pass was the Helios 2 spacecraft, which went within 27 million miles in 1976.

Just outside the Sun's atmosphere lies the emptiness of space. Zurbuchen and Fox also presented Parker with NASA's distinguished public service medal.

"And last but not least, we have a white light imager that is taking images of the atmosphere right in front of the Sun".

"I will believe there is a successful launch when there is a successful launch", said Parker, who the mission is named after.

"We have ideas about what will be found, but the most important results may well come from observations that are completely unexpected", said Mark Wiedenbeck, a researcher at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and part of the ISOIS team. We've looked at it. 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", Parker said.

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