NASA's First Spacecraft to 'Touch the Sun' Ready For August 6 Launch on Delta IV Heavy

Parker Solar Probe sits in a clean room on July 6, 2018, at Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Florida, after the installation of its heat shield. Photo Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

In a scenario reminiscent of Icarus in Greek mythology, who flew too close to the Sun, with his wings melting as a result, our real Sun is about to receive a new visitor soon. For the first time ever, humanity is about to reach out and “touch” a star, with the launch of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe (PSP) scheduled for Aug. 6, 2018. It will fly through the incredibly hostile atmosphere of the Sun, where it will study the physics behind how heat and energy flow through the atmosphere, and aim to better understand the solar wind, which can bring down our power grids and cripple satellites, or in turn can give us fantastic displays of the Aurora Borealis.

The spacecraft has overcome a couple processing challenges lately, and required further software testing of its systems too, which caused minor delays to the launch schedule, but it is now ready for launch and is being encapsulated in a bullet-like payload fairing to meet its rocket, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta-IV Heavy, the largest and most powerful rocket used by NASA.

Transport of the spacecraft to Launch Complex 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is expected on Tuesday, July 24.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta-IV Heavy underling a Wet Dress Rehearsal on Space Launch Complex 37B for NASA’s upcoming Parker Solar Probe launch, slated for no earlier than August 6, 2018. Photo Credit: ULA

The triple-barreled 177-foot tall (without payload) rocket itself is ready to go, having already undergone critical pre-flight testing with two Wet Dress Rehearsals (WDR), or practice countdowns, a couple weeks ago to uncover any issues and validate that the launcher, systems, launch team and ground support equipment are all ready to send the spacecraft on its mission to the sun.

Launch of the $1.5 billion dollar mission is currently scheduled for 4:08 a.m. EDT on August 6, and will head due East from Florida. But they only have until August 19th to launch, otherwise they will miss the planet Venus, whose gravity the spacecraft will need to “steer” itself into the proper orbits of the sun for the mission’s science objectives, getting closer and closer with each orbit.

 

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Built by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, the lightweight car-sized PSP is the most autonomous spacecraft ever made, and will become the fastest human-made object in history when it makes its closest approach to the sun, traveling at speeds of up to 430,000 miles per hour (700,000 kilometers per hour) as it swoops through the Sun’s atmosphere 24 times over a period of 7 years, or as fast as traveling from New York City to Tokyo in less than one minute.

The sun’s corona shines bright in this incredible image of a Total Solar Eclipse over South Carolina, USA on August 21, 2017. NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will dive through this region numerous times over the next 7 years, giving humanity our first ever samplings of a star, and a better understanding of how it works and drives the space environment across the solar system. Photo Courtesy: Hap Griffin / www.ImagingInfinity.com

Penetrating the outer atmosphere of the Sun, called the corona (which you can see during total solar eclipses), PSP will take many different kinds of measurements, equipped with four instrument suites, and produce images to help revolutionize scientists’ understanding of how the Sun, and therefore other stars, behave.

So what are the science goals of this mission? There are three primary science objectives:

  • Trace the flow of energy that heats and accelerates the solar corona and solar wind.
  • Determine the structure and dynamics of the plasma and magnetic fields at the sources of the solar wind.
  • Explore mechanisms that accelerate and transport energetic particles.

Understanding what is happening in the Sun itself will also help scientists more accurately predict space weather effects such as solar wind, flares and coronal mass ejections, which can adversely affect satellite communications and the power grid on Earth (as well as create beautiful auroras). This knowledge can also help with issues like pipeline erosion, radiation exposure on airline flights and astronaut safety. Billions of tons of highly magnetized material can erupt from the Sun at speeds of several million miles an hour.

Including space weather, there are many good reasons to study the Sun. As noted but the mission team:

  • The Sun is the only star we can study up close. By studying this star we live with, we learn more about stars throughout the universe.
  • The Sun is a source of light and heat for life on Earth. The more we know about it, the more we can understand how life on Earth developed.
  • The Sun also affects Earth in less familiar ways. It is the source of the solar wind; a flow of ionized gases from the Sun that streams past Earth at speeds of more than 500 km per second (a million miles per hour).
  • Disturbances in the solar wind shake Earth’s magnetic field and pump energy into the radiation belts, part of a set of changes in near-Earth space known as space weather.
  • Space weather can change the orbits of satellites, shorten their lifetimes, or interfere with onboard electronics. The more we learn about what causes space weather – and how to predict it – the more we can protect the satellites we depend on.
  • The solar wind also fills up much of the Solar System, dominating the space environment far past Earth. As we send spacecraft and astronauts further and further from home, we must understand this space environment just as early seafarers needed to understand the ocean.

The Sun is the closest star to Earth, and soon, the Parker Solar Probe will become the first spacecraft to study it up close. Photo Credit: NASA/SDO

Scientists have been trying to answer some of the questions about the Sun, such as how energy and heat move through the solar corona and what accelerates the solar wind and solar energetic particles, for over 60 years. But to get the answers, it is necessary to actually fly through the corona itself. One big question is the “coronal heating problem” – the apparent mismatch between the temperature of the Sun’s photosphere – the “surface,” measuring about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit – and the much higher temperature of the corona – the “atmosphere,” which can reach 10 million degrees Fahrenheit.

PSP will not only study the Sun up close, but will also use it for power, using solar arrays, while the Solar Array Cooling System (SACS) will help to protect the arrays from the extreme heat. The solar arrays were installed and tested on May 31, 2018.

“Unlike solar-powered missions that operate far from the Sun and are focused only on generating power from it, we need to manage the power generated along with the substantial heat that comes from being so close to the Sun,” said Andy Driesman, project manager from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. “When we’re out around the orbit of Venus, we fully extend the arrays to get the power we need. But when we’re near the Sun, we tuck the arrays back until only a small wing is exposed, and that portion is enough to provide needed electrical power.”

Illustration of the orbit of PSP around the Sun. Image Credit: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio

Also, by learning more about our Sun, scientists can extrapolate that knowledge to learn more about other Sun-like stars, and conditions for possible habitability of any planets orbiting those stars. Such stars are common in our galaxy, and thanks to Kepler and other telescopes, we already know about exoplanets orbiting some of them, including Earth-sized worlds in the habitable zones of their stars (where temperatures could allow liquid water on their surfaces).

Besides a multitude of instruments, the spacecraft will also carry the names of 1.1 million people who submitted their names to be added to a memory card stored onboard. As well as the names, the memory card also contains photos of Eugene Parker, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, and a copy of his groundbreaking 1958 scientific paper about how stars, including the Sun, give off material.

“Parker Solar Probe is going to revolutionize our understanding of the Sun, the only star we can study up close,” said Nicola Fox, project scientist for Parker Solar Probe at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland. “It’s fitting that as the mission undertakes one of the most extreme journeys of exploration ever tackled by a human-made object, the spacecraft will also carry along the names of so many people who are cheering it on its way.”

On June 27, 2018, the probe’s heat shield, called the Thermal Protection System (TPS) was installed. The shield is eight feet in diameter, weighs about 160 pounds and is made of two panels of superheated carbon-carbon composite sandwiching a lightweight 4.5-inch-thick carbon foam core; it is designed to endure the extreme heat that PSP will encounter, of nearly 2,500 F (1,377 C).

The Parker Solar Probe undergoes testing In the Astrotech processing facility in Titusville, Florida, near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, on Tuesday, June 5, 2018. Photo Credit: NASA/Glenn Benson

Both the shield and the spacecraft itself are lightweight in order to achieve the desired orbits around the Sun and sustain the brutal heat and radiation PSP will face. A special white coating was also sprayed on the Sun-facing side of the heat shield, to reflect the Sun’s energy away from the spacecraft as much as possible.

Needless to say, the survival of PSP depends on the shield working properly, which has been thoroughly tested multiple times. This addition of the shield is actually a reinstallation. It had previously been attached to the spacecraft for testing at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, in the fall of 2017. In April 2018, both the heat shield and spacecraft were sent to Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Florida for additional testing, after they had also been tested separately at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The spacecraft is also the first ever by NASA to be named by someone who is still alive, University of Chicago Prof. Eugene Parker, 91, who has dedicated his life to unraveling the sun’s mysteries and is best known for radically altering ideas about the solar system in the 1950s by proposing the concept of solar wind.

And don’t worry; unlike Icarus, PSP should be able to survive its journey to the Sun just fine.

 


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1 comment to NASA’s First Spacecraft to ‘Touch the Sun’ Ready For August 6 Launch on Delta IV Heavy

  • Sue thomas

    HOW DARE YOU MAKE SUCH A GODLY DECISION TO INTERFERE WITH THE EARTH’S SUN.?!!

    I HOPE THIS SHIP ENDS SIMILAR TO ICARUS, MELTED INTO THE SUN BY GOD. instead of falling into the OCEAN.

    The SUN IS ENTIRELY ESSENTIAL TO ALL OF Earth’s people; HOW CAN A GROUP OF SCIENTISTS DECIDE THE FATE OF OUR LIFE-GIVING SOURCE?

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