Nasa will launch its long-anticipated space probe that hopes to ‘touch the sun’ from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station next month.
The Parker Solar Probe will fly at speeds of up to 430,000mph (700,000kph) in an attempt to get closer to the surface of the star than any other mission before it.
Experts hope this proximity will provide vital information on the life of stars and devastating solar flares which can buffet Earth.
At their worst, the solar storms they create can create havoc with power networks and disrupt the operations of satellites.
The launch date for a Nasa space probe (artist’s impression) that will ‘touch the sun’ has been announced. The Parker Solar Probe (PSP) will fly at speeds of up to 430,000mph (700,000kph) in an attempt to get closer to the surface of the star than any before it
Experts are hoping it will provide vital information on the life of stars and devastating solar flares which can buffet the planet
The Parker Solar Probe (PSP), which is roughly the size of a car, will launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on August 4.
It will provide unprecedented information about our Sun, where changing conditions can spread out into the solar system to affect Earth and other worlds.
The spacecraft will fly directly into the sun’s atmosphere and make its obeservations from a safe distance of approximately four million miles (6.5 million km) from the surface.
From there, the Nasa spacecraft will trace how energy and heat move through the sun’s atmosphere and explore what accelerates the solar wind and solar energetic particles.
The launch will be streamed live via Nasa’s website.
Datat collected by the PSP will help scientists improve how we predict dangerous solar flares (artist’s impression). At their worst, the solar storms they create can create havoc with power networks and disrupt the operations of satellites
After its launch next month, the probe will travel for almost seven years before it eventually reaches its destination in 2024.
The PSP will complete seven orbits of the sun that will bring the craft progressively closer to its target.
The spacecraft will fly through the sun’s atmosphere as close as 3.8 million miles (six million km) to our star’s surface, well within the orbit of Mercury and more than seven times closer than any spacecraft has come before.
Earth’s average distance to the sun is 93 million miles (150 million km).
A spokesman for Nasa said: ‘ Flying into the outermost part of the sun’s atmosphere, known as the corona, for the first time, Parker Solar Probe will employ a combination of in situ measurements and imaging to revolutionise our understanding of the corona and expand our knowledge of the origin and evolution of the solar wind.
‘It will also make critical contributions to our ability to forecast changes in Earth’s space environment that affect life and technology on Earth.’
As part of the mission, the agency invited people to include their name on a microchip aboard its probe.
The agency offered entrants to the promotion, which ran in March, a free digital certificate with their name and the date on that they can print or download.
On its website at the time, Nasa says: ‘Submit your name and it will be included in a memory card that will fly aboard Parker Solar Probe spacecraft.’
Nasa began testing its new probe earlier this year ahead of its launch this summer.
The agency has previously said the probe will 430,000mph (700,000kph) probe will ‘touch the sun’ when it reaches the star’s outer atmosphere.
WHAT IS NASA’S PARKER SOLAR PROBE AND WHEN WILL IT LAUNCH?
Nasa’s Parker Solar Probe (PSP) is set to travel seven times closer to the sun than any spacecraft before it.
Set for launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in August 2018, the probe will fly to the sun’s outer atmosphere to study life of stars and their weather events.
It is hoped that PSP can help scientists to better understand solar flares – brief eruptions of intense high-energy radiation from the sun’s surface that can knock out communications on Earth.
Nasa’s Parker Solar Probe (PSP) is set to travel seven times closer to the sun than any spacecraft before it (artist’s impression)
The spacecraft will swoop within 4 million miles (6.5 million km) of the sun’s surface – bringing it seven times closer to the sun’s surface than any spacecraft before it.
The craft will face extremes in heat and radiation and will reach speeds of up to 430,000 miles per hour (700,000 kph) at its closest flyby of the star.
The craft’s kit includes a white light imager called Whisper, which will take images of solar waves as the craft propels through them at high speeds.
To measure the ‘bulk plasma’ of solar winds – described by Nasa as the ‘bread and butter’ of the flares – a set of magnetic imaging equipment will also be stored on board.
The craft will collect vital information about the life of stars and their weather events.
This will help scientists improve how we predict dangerous solar flares, which can disrupt satellites and power supplies here on Earth.
In January, experts from Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland lowered the PSP into a 40 foot (12 metre) tall thermal vacuum chamber.
The chamber simulates the harsh conditions that the spacecraft will experience on its journey through space, including near-vacuum conditions and severe hot and cold temperatures.
Engineers will pull the spacecraft out of the chamber in mid-March after a seven-week stint for final tests and packing before it is sent to Florida, where it’s scheduled to launch on July 31 aboard a Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle.
Nasa begun testing its Parker Solar Probe in January. It will ‘touch the sun’ when it launches into space this summer. The Parker Solar Probe (pictured) will spend seven weeks in vacuum chamber, simulating the harsh conditions that the spacecraft will experience in space
WHAT ARE THE CATEGORIES OF SOLAR STORMS AND WHAT ARE THEIR EFFECTS?
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) uses its space weather scales to categorise solar storms.
They were introduced as a way to communicate to the general public the current and future space weather conditions and their possible effects on people and systems.
The scales describe the environmental disturbances for three event types: geomagnetic storms, solar radiation storms, and radio blackouts.
The scales have numbered levels, analogous to hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes that convey severity.
G5 – Extreme
Power systems: Widespread voltage control problems and protective system problems can occur. Some grid systems may experience complete collapse or blackouts. Transformers may experience damage.
Spacecraft operations: May experience extensive surface charging, problems with orientation, uplink/downlink and tracking satellites.
Other systems: Pipeline currents can reach hundreds of amps, high frequency radio propagation may be impossible in many areas for one to two days, satellite navigation may be degraded for days, low-frequency radio navigation can be out for hours, and aurora has been seen as low as Florida and southern Texas (typically 40° geomagnetic latitude).
G4 – Severe
Power systems: Possible widespread voltage control problems and some protective systems will mistakenly trip out key assets from the grid.
Spacecraft operations: May experience surface charging and tracking problems, corrections may be needed for orientation problems.
Other systems: Induced pipeline currents affect preventive measures, HF radio propagation sporadic, satellite navigation degraded for hours, low-frequency radio navigation disrupted, and aurora has been seen as low as Alabama and northern California (typically 45° geomagnetic latitude).
G3 – Strong
Power systems: Voltage corrections may be required, false alarms triggered on some protection devices.
Spacecraft operations: Surface charging may occur on satellite components, drag may increase on low-Earth-orbit satellites, and corrections may be needed for orientation problems.
Other systems: Intermittent satellite navigation and low-frequency radio navigation problems may occur, HF radio may be intermittent, and aurora has been seen as low as Illinois and Oregon (typically 50°geomagnetic latitude).
G2 – Moderate
Power systems: High-latitude power systems may experience voltage alarms, long-duration storms may cause transformer damage.
Spacecraft operations: Corrective actions to orientation may be required by ground control; possible changes in drag affect orbit predictions.
Other systems: HF radio propagation can fade at higher latitudes, and aurora has been seen as low as New York and Idaho (typically 55° geomagnetic latitude).
G1 – Minor
Power systems: Weak power grid fluctuations can occur.
Spacecraft operations: Minor impact on satellite operations possible.
Other systems: Migratory animals are affected at this and higher levels; aurora is commonly visible at high latitudes (northern Michigan and Maine).
In a written statement, a spokesman for the space agency said in January: ‘Nasa’s historic Parker Solar Probe mission will revolutionise our understanding of the Sun, where changing conditions can propagate out into the solar system, affecting Earth and other worlds.
‘Parker Solar Probe will travel through the sun’s atmosphere, closer to the surface than any spacecraft before it, facing brutal heat and radiation conditions and ultimately providing humanity with the closest-ever observations of a star.’
Nasa revealed the first sneak peak of the probe in September 2017, including newly installed thermal shielding that can withstand temperatures of 1,371°C (2,500 F).
The device has now been shown in flight configuration for the first time at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, where it is being built.
The revolutionary heat shield that will protect the spacecraft was installed for the first time on September 21, 2017.
It measures 8 ft (2.43 m) in diameter and is made of a 4.5 inch-thick (11.43 cm) carbon-composite.
The revolutionary heat shield (top left) that will protect the spacecraft was installed for the first time on Sept 21, 2017. Its thermal protection system will reach temperatures of 2,500 °F (1,371°C) while at the sun
Nasa officially announced PSP during a live stream event in May last year at the University of Chicago’s William Eckhardt Research Centre Auditorium.
‘We wanted to take the challenge of going to the worst thermal environment in the solar system – and surviving it,’ said Dr Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of Nasa’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
‘We want to measure the environment there and find what the heating processes are that make the corona hot, and what processes accelerate the solar wind.’
Dr Zurbuchen then announced, live on air, that the probe – originally dubbed the Solar Probe Plus – was to be renamed the Parker Solar Probe after University of Chicago scientist Eugene Parker, who pioneered solar wind science.
The craft will collect vital information about the life of stars and their weather events, and will help scientists predict solar flares
Dr Parker, who was also speaking at the event, responded: ‘I am extremely honoured to be associated with this heroic space mission.’
Dr Nicola Fox, mission project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, then took to the stage.
She said that until now, Nasa didn’t have the advanced materials needed to make such a close trip to the sun’s corona.
She added that the corona is actually hotter than the sun’s centre, and that finding out why is a key part of the probe mission.
‘I like to think of this as the coolest, hottest mission,’ she said.
She explained that Parker Solar Probe will gradually ‘surf’ closer and closer to the sun, into its corona.
The craft will to withstand higher temperatures than any probe that has come before it.
‘We will finally touch the sun,’ she said.
Answering questions from the audience, Dr Fox described some of the state-of-the-art equipment that the Parker Solar Probe will carry.
The craft’s kit includes a white light imager called Whisper, which will take images of solar waves as the craft propels through them at high speeds.
To measure the ‘bulk plasma’ of solar winds – which Dr Fox described as the ‘bread and butter’ of the flares – a set of magnetic imaging equipment will also be stored on board.
According to Nasa, observations from this new vantage point will help to uncover the physics of how stars work, and could improve our ability to predict space weather.
These events have impacts on Earth as well as the satellites and astronauts in space.
Scientists have long wanted to send a probe through the sun’s corona to better understand the solar wind and the material it carries into our solar system.
‘This is going to be our first mission to fly to the sun,’ Eric Christian, a Nasa research scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said of the mission in 2017.
‘We can’t get to the very surface of the sun,’ but the mission will get close enough to answer three important questions, he said.
Until scientists can explain what is going on up close to the sun, they will not be able to accurately predict space weather effects that cause havoc at Earth.
The latest mission could help predict a ‘huge solar event’, Nasa says.
The PSP will be protected by the sun’s heat by a 4.5 inch-thick (11.43 cm) carbon-composite shield
The sun is the source of the solar wind; a flow of gases that streams past Earth at speeds of more than a million miles per hour (1.6 million km per hour).
Disturbances in the solar wind shake Earth’s magnetic field and pump energy into the radiation belts.
One recent study by the National Academy of Sciences estimated that without advance warning a huge solar event could cause two trillion dollars in damage in the US alone.
It could leave the eastern seaboard of the US could be without power for a year.
Millions of tons of highly magnetised material can erupt from the sun at speeds of several million miles an hour.
‘This mission will provide insight on a critical link in the sun-Earth connection. Data will be key to understanding and, perhaps, forecasting space weather,’ said Nasa.
‘Until we can explain what is going on up close to the sun, we will not be able to accurately predict space weather effects that can cause havoc at Earth.’
‘At its closest point, the PSP will be travelling at 450,000 miles per hour.’
HOW SOLAR WIND IS FORMED
The sun and its atmosphere are made of plasma – a mix of positively and negatively charged particles which have separated at extremely high temperatures, that both carries and travels along magnetic field lines.
Material from the corona streams out into space, filling the solar system with the solar wind.
But scientists found that as the plasma travels further away from the sun, things change.
The sun begins to lose magnetic control, forming the boundary that defines the outer corona – the very edge of the sun.
The breakup of the rays is similar to the way water shoots out from a squirt gun.
First, the water is a smooth and unified stream, but it eventually breaks up into droplets, then smaller drops and eventually a fine, misty spray.
A recent Nasa study captured the plasma at the same stage where a stream of water gradually disintegrates into droplets.
If charged particles from solar winds hit Earth’s magnectic field, this can cause problems for satellite and communication equipment.