The Sun is extremely hot. But the scorching heat isn’t the only concern for astronomers trying to demystify the star. The brutal radiation conditions also make it surprisingly hard to get to the Sun. NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, however, is headed to perform this seemingly impossible task, marking humanity’s first visit to a star.
“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 said on its website.
The federal space agency launched the Parker Solar Probe on Saturday, Aug. 11. The spacecraft lifted off on a Delta IV Heavy rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The Parker Solar Probe will achieve many feats during its unprecedented attempt to skim through the Sun’s atmosphere. Before getting into how the probe will approach the Sun, let’s understand why it’s so difficult to get there in the first place.
Remember, it’s the Sun
With 99.8 percent of the mass in our solar system, the Sun has a powerful gravitational pull. But despite such a mighty force, it takes 55 times more energy to go the Sun than it does to reach Mars.
Why is it so hard to touch the Sun? Let’s take the example of Earth itself to answer that question.
At about 67,000 miles per hour (1,07,826 km/hour), our planet is traveling very fast almost entirely sideways relative to the Sun. Earth needs to stop this sideways motion to get to the Sun.
Unlike Earth, the Parker Solar Probe needs to generate 53,000 miles per hour (85,295 km/hour) of sideways motion to reach its destination. But it won’t be an easy task.
How will it be possible?
The Parker Solar Probe will use Venus’ gravity during seven flybys over nearly seven years, before gradually bringing its orbit closer to the Sun.
These gravity assists will help the spacecraft fly through the solar atmosphere as close as 3.8 million miles from the Sun’s visible surface.
Despite shedding sideways speed, the Parker Solar Probe will pick up overall speed, boosted by Sun’s extreme gravity.
Thereby, the spacecraft will clock in at 430,000 miles per hour (6,92,018 km/hour) on its final orbits. This speed will make it the fastest-ever human-made object.
Wonder how fast it would be? Well, that’s fast enough to get from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., in just one second, according to NASA.
How will Parker Solar Probe survive the extreme conditions?
At its closest approach to the Sun, the front of the spacecraft’s solar shield will face temperatures approaching as much as 2,500 Fahrenheit (1,377 Celsius). However, its payload will still be near room temperature.
NASA said that the Parker Solar Probe and its instruments will be protected from the Sun’s heat by a 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite shield.
“Gathering information about fundamental processes near the Sun can help improve our understanding of how our solar system’s star changes the space environment, where space weather can affect astronauts, interfere with satellite orbits, or damage spacecraft electronics,” NASA said.
Here’s a timeline of the Parker Solar Probe: