NASA’s mission to fly directly into the Sun’s atmosphere

By Angela Heathcote 1 June 2017
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The mission hopes to give us new insights into how the Earth and the solar system responds to the sun.

Next year, NASA will be launching a spacecraft to explore the Sun’s atmosphere.

The Parker Solar Probe, named after astrophysicist Eugene Parker, will travel through the Sun’s corona—the plasma that encircles the Earth’s brightest star bewteen between 31 July and 20 August 2018. The mission is a part of the agency’s ‘Living with a Star’ program that looks to explore how the Earth and the solar system respond to the sun.

The spacecraft is around 3m tall, with a 2.3m wide heat shield and will orbit the sun 24 times, eventually coming within less than 6.4 million km of the surface.

Nicola Fox, mission project scientist from the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory told the ABC that she was eager to answer questions regarding the corona on the outside of the Sun and speed variations of solar wind. “These questions are important because we literally live in the atmosphere of the Sun,” Fox added.

Stuart Ryder from the Australian Astronomical Observatory told Australian Geographic, “We still don’t understand what heats the solar corona to temperatures far hotter than its surface,” he said. “We used to think it was sound waves created as large cells of hot gas bubbled to the surface, but it’s more complex than that. It used to be the only way to study the solar corona was during the brief moments of totality during a solar eclipse, adding, “But now it’s time for the Parker Solar Probe to go and touch (though “taste” or “smell” is probably more apt) the Sun for us.”

Being able to detect magnetic storms and solar flares from the Sun will enable scientists to better predict the impact of this weather on Earth.

Ryder says that much like the Juno probe, which orbits Jupiter and recently revealed the complexities of the planet, there’s no substitute for getting in close and making ‘in situ’ measurements.

Brett Carter from the RMIT Space Research Centre added that our knowledge has remained limited to what we can see through telescopes or space-based cameras. Carter told Australian Geographic,“This new mission is venturing into a region of space that humans have never explored before and the data that comes out of this mission is likely to revolutionise our understanding about the Sun, the solar wind plasma that streams outwards from it, and the associated impacts of this environment on technologies that are vulnerable to space weather.”