How NASA’s Parker Solar Probe Will Touch the Sun | NYT – Out There

How NASA’s Parker Solar Probe Will Touch the Sun | NYT – Out There


“Set the controls for the heart of the sun.” In the summer of 2018, the Parker Solar Probe
will lift off from Earth. It will spend the next seven years spiraling inward to
the center of the solar system. The Parker probe will be
the first spacecraft to touch our star. Or any star. It will brush through the halo of hot gases that form the sun’s outer atmosphere: the corona. The surface of the sun
looks placid to our eyes, but it is pierced and roiled
by strong magnetic fields. The fields trap gas blowing off the Sun and lift it into glowing
arcs and streamers. Scientists don’t understand
how the corona works, or why it’s hundreds of times hotter than the surface of the sun. The Parker probe will
pass closer to the Sun than any mission before it. To get that close,
the spacecraft will make seven flybys of Venus over seven years, gradually tightening its elliptical orbit and shifting it closer
and closer to the sun. A high-tech heat shield will protect the probe from the punishing radiation and heat of the corona. Within the shield’s shadow, the spacecraft instruments will operate at a comfortable room temperature. As the probe passes close to the sun, it will briefly become the fastest machine ever built by humans, zipping along at a brisk
430,000 miles per hour. The Parker probe is
the first NASA spacecraft to be named after a living person. Eugene Parker is an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago. In 1958, he suggested
that the sun radiates a constant and intense
stream of charged particles. He called it the solar wind. This wind pushes out comet tails and makes the long streamers
seen in solar eclipses. With the Parker Solar Probe, scientists hope to learn more
about the sun’s turbulent corona. How it accelerates particles, and how it flings huge clouds of fiery gas outward across space. Huge waves of magnetized gas are called coronal mass ejections. If Earth gets in the way
of one of these storms, it could be bad news. Our planet is protected
by its own magnetic field, but a direct hit from
one of these galloping clouds of particles and radiation
could disrupt satellites and force astronauts in
the space station to take shelter. In 1859, a powerful storm
called the Carrington Event produced auroras as far south as Cuba. A solar storm of that size today could cripple satellites and power grids around the world. If successful, the Parker probe’s mission to touch the sun may explain how solar storms form. Scientists hope it might teach us how to predict coronal outbursts
more accurately and learn how to endure them. We’ve always depended
on the kindness of a star, here on a planet riding the gentle fringe of barely calculable forces. Living with a star is not easy. But we’re learning.

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