NASA’s Parker Solar Probe Reaches the Sun

 Artist interpretation of the probe reaching the Sun: John Hopkins University

Artist interpretation of the probe reaching the Sun: John Hopkins University

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe finally reached the sun after more than three years of travelling through space. The probe’s mission was to fly into the Sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona.

With the size of a small car, the Solar Probe reached the sun on December 14th, 2021 as it, “… smashed its own speed record, accelerating to a velocity as great as 101 miles per second, or more than 364,000 miles per hour, as it loops the sun,” according to newsweek.com.                       

Launched on August 12, 2018, the probe will gather data on the processes that revolutionize the understanding of the corona.

“The thing we really don’t understand about the Sun, and therefore stars in general, is why its atmosphere gets hotter further away from the heat source. We’ve been trying to solve this mystery for more than 50 years, by taking measurements from a nice, safe distance, and it’s left us in an unusual position,” stated ​Professor Mathew Owens, a space scientist at the University of Reading. 

The probe’s seven-year mission will also increase our knowledge of the origin and evolution of the solar wind (plasma ejected from the sun’s surface into and through interplanetary space). 

Evident as it is, the Sun’s atmosphere is hot—2 million degrees Fahrenheit hot. So, how does the solar probe withstand the heat? As stated by engineerine.com, “Its unique heat shield and an autonomous mechanism that protects the probe yet allows coronal material to ‘touch’ the spacecraft is the most critical feature.” 

The corona has a high temperature but low density. Think about it as the difference between putting your hand in boiling water or putting your hand in an oven. Hands can survive far higher temperatures in the oven for longer periods than they can in boiling water since they have to deal with more particles in boiling water. 

Similarly, the corona is less dense than the visible surface of the Sun so the probe encounters fewer hot particles. Therefore, the heat shield facing the sun of the solar probe will only be heated to roughly 2,500 F, around the same temperature as volcanic lava. 

According to businessinsider.in, the Parker Solar Probe is the closest spacecraft to the Sun, and it can survive extreme temperatures due to a thermal shield that is made of carbon-composite material. Thousands of mirrors were also utilized to reflect sunlight, according to tech.hctimes.com.  

As reported by Nasa.gov, this mission will expand our understanding of the Sun, similar stars, and our solar system as a whole. It will also provide essential contributions “…to our ability to forecast changes in Earth’s space environment that affect life and technology on Earth.”

Marking humanity’s closest approach to the Sun, the Parker Solar Probe’s mission is one big leap for mankind.