NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is set to make history in 2024 by becoming the first spacecraft to “touch” the Sun. After launching in 2018, the Parker probe has been gradually moving closer to the Sun over a series of orbits and will finally reach its closest approach in 2024.
Background on the Parker Solar Probe Mission
The Parker Solar Probe mission aims to study the corona and solar wind by flying directly through the Sun’s outer atmosphere. The spacecraft carries instruments to measure the environment around the probe as it approaches closer to the Sun.
Some key details about the Parker mission:
- Launched in August 2018 aboard a Delta IV Heavy rocket
- Will perform 24 orbits, gradually getting closer to the Sun each pass
- Includes a cutting-edge thermal protection system to shield instruments
- Passed within 15 million miles of the Sun’s surface in late 2024
The probe is named after astrophysicist Eugene Parker, who first theorized the solar wind in 1958. Studying the solar wind and processes that heat the corona has been a top priority for heliophysics research.
The Upcoming Close Approach in 2024
In 2024, the Parker probe will finally achieve its closest approach, passing within 4 million miles of the visible surface of the Sun. At this distance, it will be immersed in the extreme environment of the solar corona.
|Close Approach Date
|Distance from Sun
|4 million miles
The probe will reach speeds up to 430,000 miles per hour while whipping around the Sun. This will set the record for fastest human-made object in history.
This extreme velocity is needed to counteract the incredible pull from the Sun’s gravity. Remarkably, from Earth’s viewpoint, Parker’s instruments could transmit data back at up to 60 megabytes per second from such close vicinity to the Sun.
Objectives for the 2024 Solar Encounter
The key objectives for Parker’s unprecedented voyage into the solar corona are:
- Take first direct measurements of the corona’s environment: Measure properties like magnetic fields, plasma, fluctuations, and energetic particles at different zones ranging outwards from the Sun
- Track the source and acceleration of the solar wind: Trace how energy from the Sun gets converted into the stream of solar wind particles blowing past Earth
- Study the dust environment close to the Sun: Dust grains travelling at high speeds can damage spacecraft, Parker will analyze their abundances and trajectories
- Test theories on coronal heating and the emergence of solar eruptions: Many solar models have been hypothetical until now, Parker’s up-close observations will enable direct tests
The encounter is likely to uncover new findings that transform our understanding of stars and improve space weather predictions.
Looking Ahead After the 2024 Flyby
Assuming it survives its close solar pass, Parker could continue operating until around 2030 when its fuel runs out.
With another 5 years, Parker could enhance models of the Sun’s variability and activity cycles by surveying behavior changes over a quarter of a full solar cycle.
Meanwhile, the European Space Agency is planning to launch the Solar Orbiter mission in 2025 on a complementary journey taking it within 26 million miles of the Sun.
Solar Orbiter will provide wider-view remote sensing observations to complement Parker’s in-situ sampling to create a complete picture of solar phenomena.
The Significance of Studying our Sun
As the center of our solar system, the Sun’s activity and outbursts drive space weather events that can impact life on Earth. Solar storms can damage satellites, disrupt GPS systems and electrical grids, and endanger astronauts in space.
By understanding the solar wind and events near the Sun, scientists can build better models to predict storms. This could provide vital warnings to protect infrastructure and people working in space.
In a greater sense, studying our local star advances discoveries about the universe itself. The Sun serves as a model for learning about the inner workings of similar stars across the cosmos. Probing the fundamental physics at play sets the stage to resolve enduring mysteries from solar fusion to why the corona burns hotter than the surface.
After over 15 years in development, NASA is eagerly awaiting the trove of revelations soon to come from Parker’s long-awaited rendezvous with our star. The 2024 solar encounter promises to be a monumental moment in space exploration history.
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