To touch the Sun: The Parker Solar Probe

Popularly known as the mission “to touch the sun”, the investigative Parker Solar Probe was launched by NASA, aboard a Delta IV-Heavy rocket, from Cape Canaveral on 12th August. Its mission is to send a satellite closer to the Sun than any previous spacecraft.

The probe, named after astrophysicist Eugene Parker of the University of Chicago (who first described solar wind in 1958), aims to dip directly into the Sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona.

NASA says that the research gathered during the probe’s seven year mission will help improve scientist’s ability to “forecast space weather events, which have the potential to damage satellites and harm astronauts on orbit, disrupt radio communications and, at their most severe, overwhelm power grids.”

It will be December before the probe is ready to transmit its first data to Earth. During the seven year mission, the probe will make 24 loops around the Sun to study the physics of the corona. As it travels, it will pick up speeds of 430,000mph, making it the fastest man-made object ever.

In order to maintain its orbit around the Sun, the probe will use the gravity from Venus to propel it onwards. In all, the probe will make six rotations of Venus, (the first in November), which will take it 15 million miles from the Sun. With each rotation, the probe will get closer to the corona, until it is just 3.8 million miles away.

The Parker Solar Probe is part of NASA’s Living with a Star program. This has been designed to explore aspects of the Sun-Earth system that directly affect life and society. As Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, explains, “This mission truly marks humanity’s first visit to a star that will have implications not just here on Earth, but how we better understand our universe. We’ve accomplished something that decades ago, lived solely in the realm of science fiction.”
The Parker Solar Probe is only one of many recent space explorations and discoveries that have lead to an ever growing understanding of our universe.

On 7th August this year, scientists from the University of Potsdam, having led an intense study of the waves on Jupiter using research gathered by the Galileo Probe spacecraft. The scientists involved concluded that “the power of chorus waves is a million times more intense near the Jovian moon Ganymede, and 100 times more intense near the moon Europa than the average around these planets. This research into Jupiter’s waves provides us with a unique opportunity to understand the fundamental processes that are relevant to laboratory plasmas and the quest for new energy sources here on Earth”.

It isn’t just the launch of discovery probes that is providing us with more information about the origins of our universe and hope for improving our future. In August this year, scientists from the University of New Mexico, Arizona State University and NASA’s Johnson Space Centre, who have been studying the oldest-ever dated igneous meteorite, found evidence to help understand how our solar system’s planet formed.

As Science Today explains, “Scientists believe the solar system was formed some 4.6 billion years ago when a cloud of gas and dust collapsed under gravity possibly triggered by cataclysmic explosion from a nearby massive star or supernova. As this cloud collapsed, it formed a spinning disk with the Sun in the centre.” Thanks to the study of this meteor, research has proved that chemically evolved silica-rich rocks were forming into small mini-planets, 10 million years prior to the assembly of the terrestrial planets.

With seven years of research from the Parker Solar Probe to come, and many more space missions planned, it is clear that the universe in which we live has a great deal more left to teach us.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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