“Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.”
-Carl Sagan, Cosmos
The first but definitely not the last star we are setting sail for is our own Sun. We are on the road of accomplishing this mission by using our very own Parker Solar probe. Parker Solar probe is named after physicist Eugene Parker, it is the first NASA mission to be named after a living person! Eugene Parker’s theories explains the existence of solar winds, he was also one of the first person to coin the term solar wind.He also postulated that Sun’s outer atmosphere was hotter than it’s surface,one of the major findings we expect from Parker solar probe, thus naming the probe on his name.
Parker solar probe was launched on 12 August 2018 from Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. It was launched using the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket. The $1.5 billion mission will make a total of 24 close solar flybys over the next seven years. The probe is expected to reach at it’s closest flyby which is just 6.16 million kilometers by 2024. During the final solar flyby, the spacecraft will reach a top speed of about 690,000 km/h.
Parker solar probe is the first mission specially designed to go and study a star. It has got a variety of instruments attached to it to explore as further as we can. One of it’s main mission is to study solar winds in depth. Solar winds are stream of charged particles released from corona, the atmosphere of sun. Solar winds cause auroras on the South and North pole of Earth named Aurora australis and Aurora Borealis respectively. Scientists are even trying to harness their energy to create an efficient spacecraft which can use solar winds to move just like a sailboat uses wind to move! These solar winds are actually dangerous for humans but fortunately we have a magnetic field around the Earth along with Van Allen Belts that protects is from them. But interestingly these solar winds also protects us from harmful cosmic rays and particles, after reaching a certain distance far from solar system, these solar winds start accumulating and right now solar system is engulfed in crescent shaped cloud of solar wind called as Heliosphere which is responsible for our protection.
First thing than comes to any human’s mind is how will this probe survive the scorching heat of the Sun? Parker solar probe has been specifically designed to withstand such immense heat. The temperature in the corona of sun is a near to a few million degrees and fluctuates regularly. Parker solar probe will be able to withstand such heat with the help of custom heat shield and an autonomous system that helps protect the mission from the Sun’s intense light emission. Also, Sun’s corona has a very low density which again lowers down the temperature for the probe. This custom heat shield is known as Thermal Protection System, or TPS which is 4.5 inches thick. This was created by using a carbon composite foam sandwiched between two carbon plates with ceramic paint to reflect the heat as much as we can.
Parker solar probe has also got a number of instruments to search everything about these winds. One of them is SWEAP or Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons unit which has a task to identify the particles that constitute these solar winds. SPC or Solar Probe Cup and SPAN or Solar Probe Analyzers which will analyse the properties of components of coronal plasma of Sun, like their velocity, density etc. Then there are FIELDS and WISPR, FIELDS will estimate the electric and magnetic fields of the star and on the other hand WISPR will help estimate masses like coronal ejections and other projectiles.
Parker solar probe is currently the closest human made object to the sun replacing Helios 2. This probe will open a lot of new opportunities for humankind. It will discover the undiscovered truth of Sun and at the end will help us in understanding it better. As we understand Sun, we will also learn about the rest of the solar system creating new opportunities for us. It’s success will also impact future space travels and hopefully future intergalactic or interstellar travelers.Though we will need a pretty big and immensely fast spacecraft but such heat shields can be really useful for astronauts’ protection.Moreover, this spacecraft is creating new records and opening new roads for us everyday.The only thing we can do right now is hope for the best and keep gazing stars.