Just like beachgoers looking to get a tan, NASA has its own date with the sun this summer. This August, the agency will launch the Parker Solar Probe on a seven-year journey to get closer to the sun than any other man-made object. The mission will see the car-size spacecraft rendezvous with the corona, the outermost layer of the sun’s atmosphere, located several million miles from the surface of the star.
After slingshotting around Venus, the probe itself will get within 3.8 million miles of the surface of the sun, dipping into the corona to perform a series of experiments aimed at studying three major solar mysteries: how the electric and magnetic fields in the corona impact solar wind, what causes energized particles to accelerate into space, and why the corona is hotter than the surface of the sun (by several million degrees Fahrenheit).
While scientists have long studied solar wind—the flow of charged plasma from the sun that not only creates the aurora when it hits the Earth’s magnetic field, but also disrupts communications systems—they don’t quite know how that material is accelerated to supersonic speeds reaching over one million miles per hour. It’s been theorized that this occurs in the corona, thus the Parker Solar Probe and its suite of instruments will be perfectly situated to observe the turbulent energy patterns upon its arrival at the sun.
The Parker Solar Probe will also study the intense temperatures in the corona. The surface of the sun is a relatively cool 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit, while the plasma in the corona spikes up to several million degrees Fahrenheit—a bit of a puzzle, since the sun’s energy originates in its core, and we’d expect the heat to lessen as the distance from the core increases. “Since Parker Solar Probe will pass through this hot corona at a minimum distance of only nine solar radii [the solar radius is 432,300 miles] above the Sun’s surface, instruments on the spacecraft should detect remnant signatures of the prominent coronal plasma heating process,” says Decker.
Of course, as the probe must withstand these intense temperatures, new technology had to be developed to protect the sensitive instruments—a process that essentially took six decades. The mission’s roots can be traced back to 1958, when astrophysicist Eugene Parker, for whom the probe is named, published a paper theorizing the existence of solar winds, which had never been recorded or measured. (His theory was proven correct just two years later.) Since then, scientists longed to send a probe to study the sun. “The technology development took several decades to catch up with scientific aspirations,” says Decker. “The thermal protection system (TPS) and the actively cooled solar arrays designed and developed for and installed on Parker Solar Probe are key examples.”