A Look at NASA’s Trip to the Sun

Things are heating up out at NASA as they continue preparing for a mission like no other – their mission to “touch the sun.” Scheduled to launch in Summer of 2018, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe mission will revolutionize our understanding of the sun.

This Solar Probe will go closer to the sun than any mission before it and will help us better interpret its changing conditions that can affect Earth and other planets. So, what does this trip to the sun entail? Here’s the important details for you.

The Mission

During the mission, the Parker Solar Probe will fly through the sun’s atmosphere as close as 3.9 million miles to its surface, well within the orbit of Mercury and more than seven times closer than any spacecraft has come before.

Between 2018 and 2025, the spacecraft will perform 24 orbits, looping closer to the sun and eventually speeding towards it at 450,000 miles per hour. During these orbits the spacecraft will gather a variety of data about the sun and hopefully answer two fundamental questions:

  • Why is the solar corona so much hotter than the photosphere?
  • How is the solar wind accelerated?

The sun’s atmosphere, which we call the corona, is hotter – 300 times hotter, in fact – than its surface. “It’s like water flowing uphill. It shouldn’t happen,” mission project scientist Nicola Fox of the Johns Hopkins lab said during a Tedx Talk. It’s mystery that has puzzled physicists for decades and one that NASA hopes to solve by going in closer.

They will also study solar wind, which is the flow of charged gases from the sun. These winds fly past Earth at a million miles per hour, and can cause disruptive space weather that impacts our planet. Understanding them will be crucial in protecting astronauts during space travel and predicting solar events that could damage satellites and knock out power on Earth.

The Spacecraft

The Parker Solar Probe stands at roughly 10 feet (3 meters) tall and will weigh roughly 1500 pounds (685 kilograms) at takeoff. While it not be very large in terms of spacecraft, it’s astonishingly tough. The probe was designed to endure temperatures up to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,370 degrees Celsius) and solar radiation intensities 475 times higher than we’re used to here on Earth.

Built at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, the probes incredible 4.5-inch-thick (11.43 cm) carbon-composite shield, protects the interior electronics keeping the inside of the probe near room temperature.

Just recently, the probe’s heat shield was installed and NASA’s Delta IV Heavy rocket that plans to take the probe into space arrived at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. So, although the 28-day launch window doesn’t begin until July 31, 2018, the Parker Solar Probe mission is well on its way to making history.

Want to stay up-to-date and prepare for future missions? Click here to view the launch schedule.