Parker Probe: the mission to solve the mystery of the Sun

Parker Probe

 Image credit: NASA


Whenever we ask our star dome visitors, where they would like to go on a space journey, there are always a few people who would say “the Sun”. And, to be honest, who wouldn’t like to get a closer look at our nearest star? Unfortunately, we, fragile humans, cannot withstand harsh radiation and extreme temperatures. But we’ve built a spacecraft that will do the lethal job for us! Through its sensitive instruments we will soon finally touch the Sun!

This August, NASA scientists are planning to launch Parker Solar Probe, a solar explorer that will get closer to the star than any other mission in history.  The probe will be launched from NASA Kennedy Space Centre in Florida atop Delta IV Heavy rocket. The launch window will open on August 6, 2018 so the countdown for the big day has already began!

Why studying the Sun?

We humans literally live within our star’s atmosphere. Yes, the Sun looks quite compact, its visible size is “only” 1.39 000 000 kilometers. But there is much more to the Sun that we can see with our eyes! Whenever we talk about the size of the Sun we usually refer to the “visible surface”. Or photosphere. But the Sun does not “end” at the photosphere. There are more layers above it, such as chromosphere and corona. Corona is a quite mysterious region where the temperature suddenly goes up from a few thousand to a few million degrees. And then there is a heliosphere, a bubble around the Sun filled with solar wind plasma, that stretches well beyond the orbit of Pluto. There is a lot going on in those outer layer of the Sun. You might have heard about such phenomena as coronal mass ejections, solar flares, coronal holes and solar wind.The high speed charged particles and magnetic fields that the Sun shoots out during these events create space weather, that affects our satellites, and communication systems. It can be dangerous for the future astronaut missions too. Well, once we venture to step out of the Earth’s protective magnetic field. Therefore we want to learn more about the processes inside the Sun to be able to understand and predict space weather!

What is Parker Probe?

Parker Solar Probe is a NASA mission that will study the solar corona, the outermost layer of the Sun’s atmosphere. The spacecraft about the size of the city car will carry four sets of instruments that will measure the Sun’s magnetic field, count and measure particles of the solar wind and take pictures. Scientists hope that Parker Probe will help us find the answers to some fundamental questions about the Sun, such as why the temperature of corona is much higher than the temperature of the photosphere and what powers the solar wind.

How did the probe get its name?

The mission was named after astronomer Eugene Newman Parker, Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago (Chandrasekhar was another famous astronomer, you can learn more about him in our blog). Parker’s work focuses on plasma physics and its application to astrophysics. He was the first to propose the existence of the solar wind, the flow of charged particles from the Sun. Many of Parker’s fellow scientists did not accept the idea at first. But later observations confirmed his theory. Parker studied the Sun’s magnetic field and concluded, that due to the Sun’s rotation the magnetic field should be shaped like a Parker Spiral.

It is the first time in history that the scientists name the spacecraft after a living person.

What trajectory will the Parker Probe follow?

The probe’s journey will last for nearly 7 years. During this time the spacecraft will perform 24 orbits around our star.  To correct the course, the probe will do seven flybys of planet Venus, getting closer to the Sun with each maneuver.  At the closest approach Parker Probe will be 6.2 million kilometers above the surface of the Sun. At the end of the mission the probe will dive into the Sun and burn up.

See the mission’s timeline for more details.


Any questions? Let our space dome team know!