Straight to the Sun

Earlier this week, United States (US) space agency NASA announced that it was making final preparations for the launch of the Parker Space Probe, humanity’s first mission to the Sun. The mission is scheduled for launch on July 31, 2018.

Why the Sun?

Over the last 60 years of space exploration, space agencies of several countries have sent out spacecraft to explore different corners of the universe. But none so far has headed out to the Sun, the star that makes life possible on Earth. “This probe will journey to a region humanity has never explored before,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. “This mission will answer questions scientists have sought to uncover for more than six decades.”

About Parker

Space Probe Parker is named after a living scientist named Eugene Parker who has done important work in the area of heliophysics (see box). About the size of a car, the space probe Parker will travel directly to the Sun’s atmosphere, staying about about 4 million miles from the star’s surface. It will study how energy and heat move through the solar corona (the outermost layer of the Sun’s atmosphere) and the nature of the solar wind. The solar wind is the continuous stream of energy that flows from the Sun. Understanding the Sun better will help us in turn understand that changes in the solar system that affect the Earth and other worlds.

A special craft

To withstand the extremely high levels of heat near the Sun, where temperatures would be over 1300°C, Parker is being fitted out with a 4.5-inch-thick shield of a strong material. The craft has also been designed to go very fast-it can touch speeds of 692,000 kilometres per hour. That’s fast enough to get from Delhi to San Francisco in the United States in about a minute!

Parker is one of NASA’s most important missions in 2018. No, make that actually one of the most important projects on Earth-after all we are setting out to explore the star that gave birth to life on the planet.

Did you know?

The study of the Sun and how it affects space and the planets is the field known as heliophysics.