NASA's sun spacecraft will need epic engineering to combat solar forces

Parker Solar Probe will face heat like no spacecraft to 'touch' the sun

An artist's concept of NASA's Solar Probe Plus spacecraft approaching the sun.
An artist's concept of NASA's Solar Probe Plus spacecraft approaching the sun.

A future solar exploring spacecraft will change the understanding of the sun by aiming straight for our solar system's star. NASA revealed new details Wednesday about the first mission to visit the sun.

During a news conference at the University of Chicago, NASA officials announced that the spacecraft would be called the Parker Solar Probe in honor of astrophysicist Eugene Parker, credited with discovering solar wind.

On track for a summer 2018 launch, the spacecraft will rely on incredible feats of engineering that will allow the probe to touch the sun. A 4.5-inch thick carbon-composite solar shield will protect the probe from temperatures up to 2,550 degrees Fahrenheit while keeping the science instruments at room temperature.

The spacecraft will be equipped with a thermal protection system and a solar array cooling system to protect it from the blazing sun.

The arrays, or panels, will retract and extend as the spacecraft moves around the sun, keeping it at a safe temperature and also powering it with the sun.

Parker Solar Probe's science objects include tracing the energy behind solar wind, understand the heating of the solar corona and to determine what accelerates the solar wind, according to the mission website.

“It’s a spacecraft loaded with technological breakthroughs that will solve many of the largest mysteries about our star, including finding out why the sun’s corona is so much hotter than its surface,” said mission scientist Nicola Fox, with Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

The findings will help answer questions about how stars work and improve space weather forecasting.

After launch, Parker Solar Probe will make a Venus flyby before reaching its first perihelion or the closest point to the sun. The spacecraft will then repeat that flyby of the perihelion routine 23 more times over its lifetime until 2025.

On the final orbits Parker Solar Probe will fly within 9 solar radii, or nine times the radius of the sun, of the sun’s “surface,” seven times closer than any other spacecraft has been to the sun before.

The 20-day launch window opens July 31, 2018. After testing the assembly, the spacecraft will arrive at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to prep for launch.

It's the first time a spacecraft will be named for a living person.

“It’s a testament to the importance of his body of work, founding a new field of science that also inspired my own research and many important science questions NASA continues to study and further understand every day," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

Parker, who serves as the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, also attended NASA’s announcement Wednesday.

He said he is looking forward to seeing the science form the mission going to a region of space never before explored.


 “I’m sure that there will be some surprises,” Parker said.  “There always are.”

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