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Parker Solar Probe: Touching the sun

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The Parker Solar Probe, launched Aug. 11, will be the first probe to touch the sun. More specifically, it will make contact with the corona, the outermost layer of the solar atmosphere. Currently, the probe is approximately 0.220 AU from the earth. (1 AU: ninety-three million miles)

The Mission:

The probe will be going within four million miles of the sun’s surface. The probe’s journey will continue into 2025, doing seven Venus flybys to decrease the distance between the sun and probe while in orbit. The probe is named after Dr. Eugene Parker, who hypothesized that the corona was hotter than the surface of the sun in the 50’s. He further hypothesized that the regular solar explosions in the atmosphere were the cause of the higher temperature of the corona.

One intriguing question is, how will the probe “touch the sun” without being destroyed?

“The heat shield out front of the spacecraft will protect the instruments from the fiercely hot surface,” said Dr. Ken Murphy, a physics and astronomy professor. “The heat shields core is a type of carbon foam that is 97% air. The shell of it is a carbon-carbon composite sandwiched together. The shield is about 5 inches thick,”.

Why is studying the Sun’s corona so important to Marshall?

The corona is unstable and has wild solar winds, which is caused by the extreme heat that causes the particles to move at higher speeds. We live within the sun’s atmosphere. During the mission, the Parker Solar Probe will be tracking the flow of energy that quickens the corona and winds.

“Fluctuations in the Sun’s energy can do great damage to life on Earth and can set back our modern technological systems, including our communications networks and vast power grids,” said Murphy. “A violent enough outburst from the Sun could send us back into the Stone Age.  It

is vital that we seek a thorough understanding of its complex processes.”

With this information, will be able to predict major space-weather events that will influence Earth. An example of space weather events is the Aurora. “The probe will help trace how energy and heat move through the various layers of its atmosphere,” said Murphy. “The temperature fluctuations in the solar atmosphere are bizarre. Temperatures surge as you move away from the Sun in a process that is poorly understood. The

solar wind from the Sun that reaches the Earth passes through the region that the probe will be

studying.”

Many scientists are eager about what the probe will bring, “I am excited to see data coming in from such a close distance from the Sun.  A few years ago, I didn’t think that a spacecraft could survive such a close approach,” said Murphy. The temperatures could reach 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. As the data starts coming in, the scientific community will be discussing what it all means, it should very exciting!”

If you would like to know more, you can find more information about the Parker Solar probe, on the NASA website.

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Parker Solar Probe: Touching the sun