The Parker Solar Probe is scheduled for launch this summer aboard a Delta-IV Heavy rocket, and its mission is to study a star closer than ever before. What’s more, NASA has invited the public along for the ride.
Named after astrophysicist Eugene Parker, discoverer of what we now call the solar wind, the probe will actually touch the surface of the sun on a daring mission where temperatures will climb as high as 1,400 degrees Celsius (about 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit).
As detailed at Skymania, the probe will enter an elliptical orbit, coming closer and closer to the sun each time. After seven years, it will finally reduce its orbit enough that it can fly past the giant star without getting sucked into its gravitational pull.
About the size of a small car, the probe will fly into the corona, the uppermost part of the sun’s atmosphere, less than four million miles from the surface. That’s far inside the orbit of Mercury and as close as any manmade object has ever gotten to the star in the center of our solar system. For comparison, Mercury’s orbit is about 29 million miles from the sun.
Protecting the spacecraft is a 4.5-inch thick shield of composite carbon, which will keep the payload at room temperature.
The spacecraft will be really moving too, due to the gravitational pull of the sun. At its closest approach, Parker will be travelling at approximately 430,000 mph, or fast enough to circle the Earth in 3.3 seconds.
The probe will gather data that will help scientists unravel the mysteries of the sun, such as why the corona is so much hotter than the surface, and how solar winds are created. It may also give us some insight into dangerous massive solar flares, which could cause massive communication failures here on Earth and cause up to two trillion dollars in damages.
NASA will also include a memory card on the voyage containing the names of anyone who wants to add their name to the list. William Shatner, an avid fan of NASA, had his name added to the virtual passenger list for the InSight Lander, and he’s narrated a video inviting you to sign up for the ultimate “Hot Ticket.” If you’d like to send your name to the sun, you can sign up here before April 27.
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