By: Nick Swafford
On August 12, 2018, a space probe was launched by NASA in hopes to fly closer to the sun—closer than Icarus could ever dream of. The Parker Solar Probe is a spacecraft designed to get up close and personal with the sun and uncover never-before-seen secrets. It was launched from Cape Canaveral at 3:31 in the morning after being delayed twice due to technical issues— once for a small issue that was resolved in a day and another that involved the Delta IV Heavy’s experimental upper stage of power. The Delta IV Heavy Rocket was modified for this mission, as it will take another than normal amount of power to reach the sun. This is because, surprisingly, it takes much more energy to go towards the sun than away from it. The gravity of the sun will get stronger the faster the probe gets, making course changes very difficult.
The probe will be in commission for approximately seven years and will complete seven round trips to the sun. The probe itself could never survive a constant orbit close to the sun, so NASA scientists have set it on a trajectory to be ping-ponged between the sun and Venus. A slingshot motion around the celestial bodies will propel the probe around and around for about seven years. The probe will come as close as 3.8 million miles to the surface of the sun. That may sound like a lot, but to put it in comparison, the Earth is 98 million miles away from the sun, making that distance seem very miniscule.
At the height of the Parker Solar Probe’s life, it will be hurtling around the sun at maximum speeds of 430,000 mph. You could get from Philadelphia to Washington DC (140 miles) in just one second if you were going that fast. The probe will officially become the fastest man-made object ever created, as it’s almost 200 times faster than a bullet shot from a rifle. On the other end of the spectrum, the probe will meet dangerous temperatures up to 2,500 degrees. It can withstand such temperatures because of the 4.5-inch thick carbon composite shield, which is expected to withstand the harsh temperatures and protect the fragile cargo it holds.
But, surprise, the whole point of the mission isn’t just to send a metal box to burn in the intense heat of the sun. As fun as that sounds, there is a point to sending the Parker Solar Probe to the sun. It is meant to observe the sun and record events like solar flares, as well as collect information on sunspots, the sun’s magnetosphere, plasma, energy particles, and solar winds. That’s a whole lot of data being collected about a large variety of phenomena, all of which will bring large advances in not only our understanding of our solar system, but also solar systems and standalone suns all across the galaxy.
The study of solar winds is most likely the most important aspect of this mission. Solar winds are constantly being shot from the sun outwards into the vastness of space. Solar winds hit Earth and interact with our atmosphere, so understanding their creation can help us counteract any negatives that are affiliated with them here on Earth. We can also learn about how they could possibly affect objects outside of the solar system.
Speaking of outside the solar system, I’d like to at least mention what lies on the opposite end of this mission to the sun: the mission to outside the solar system. The New Horizons spacecraft has made it to the Heliopause. Simply put, the Heliopause is the stationary battle ground between the sun’s solar wind, or energy, and the incoming particles from the rest of our galaxy. If you remember back in 2015, it was just making a flyby of Pluto, capturing this glorious image.
Now, the spacecraft has gone even further and is currently studying a very strange glow coming from the area. Currently, the best explanation for the “glow” is the excess amount of hydrogen that is pushed to the edges of our solar system, which creates an ultraviolet light when a hydrogen atom’s electron drops to the lowest energy level an electron can go.
For now however, we’ll have to worry about the aftermath of an issue a little closer to home: Hurricane Florence. Luckily the hurricane dodged Wake Forest, so we weren’t impacted that much by it, but other places closer to the coast were hit hard. So, if you were impacted at all, stay safe.