Updates on Parker Solar Probe Mission

Updates on Parker Solar Probe Mission

Parker Solar Probe might help us to know more about the Sun, sooner than expected.

The Parker Solar Probe project was announced in 2009 and totaled to $1.5 billion. Named after Eugene Parker, a physicist at the University of Chicago, the spacecraft was the first ever by NASA to be named after a living human being. The spacecraft has a memory card mounted near its antenna. The card contains names of over a million people, a photo of Parker himself, and a copy of his 1958 paper on solar physics.

This Mission is humanity’s first ever attempt to send a probe directly into the Sun’s outer atmosphere. Helios 2 was the previous record-holder for being the only machine that had gone closest to the Sun. It made a solar pass while being at only 27 million miles from the star. The Parker Solar Probe will study magnetic fields, plasma, and energetic particles present in the sun’s atmosphere.

As it will operate in a whopping 1337o C. Simultaneously, it will also map the pattern of solar winds on our star. The approximate distance of Earth to the Sun is 93 million miles. The probe will attempt to carry out its tasks at a mere distance of 3.8 million miles from the giant ball of fire. This means that the spacecraft will be in Mercury’s orbit during its closest approach to the sun.

One may wonder, how the probe will survive the extremely dangerous amounts of radiation and heat. Parker Solar Probe is equipped with a 4.5-inch thick carbon composite (Carbon-fiber plastic) heat shield that will prevent the probe from being incinerated into ash. The journey will take about seven years as the probe approaches the star. The probe is set to do seven fly-bys around Venus. After completing each orbit of Venus, the probe will gradually extend its orbit towards the Sun.

Despite all the advancement in technology, we know very little about the central star of our solar system. For decades, scientists have attempted to learn more about the star and the Parker Solar Probe may be the final nail in the coffin for unraveling the mystery surrounding the Sun. The primary mission objectives include tracing the movement of heat and energy through the Corona and to figure out how and why the solar winds and particles gain tremendous speed. These ‘winds’ cause the Corona to be at much higher temperatures than the surface of the Sun itself.

The probe was launched on 12th August 2018. On 29th October 2018, the spacecraft broke the record set by Helios 2. On 16th November 2018, the probe reported that all systems are working perfectly and a detailed performance and health report was transmitted back to the Earth. The probe also reported being at only 15 million miles from the Sun, the closest man-made object to be in such proximity with the star. Nick Pinkine, the Mission Manager of the Parker Solar Probe at the Applied Physics Lab, expressed his delight by saying,

“The team is extremely proud to confirm that we have a healthy spacecraft following perihelion. This is a big milestone, and we’re looking forward to some amazing science data coming down in a few weeks.”

Each solar encounter is called a ‘Perihelion’ and the probe’s second perihelion is expected to be around 4th April 2019. During its entire mission, the probe will perform 24 perihelia. The last three perihelia will bring the spacecraft to around 3.8 million miles from the Sun. Starting from 7th December 2018, data downloading begun via the Deep Space Network because over the course of its journey, the probe has gathered a significant amount of data to be reviewed. The downloading is expected to last four weeks. Thomas Zurbuchen, an Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate described the design of the spacecraft and said,

“Parker Solar Probe was designed to take care of itself and its precious payload during this close approach, with no control from us on Earth — and now we know it succeeded. Parker is the culmination of six decades of scientific progress. Now, we have realized humanity’s first close visit to our star, which will have implications not just here on Earth, but for a deeper understanding of our universe.”

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