The Sun is one of the most definitive bodies in our galaxy. A constant in the Earth’s history, the Sun makes life possible on our blue planet. But even though much of our life revolves around the Sun, we know little about it.
Distance, gravity, and incredible heat make it a challenge to study the Sun up close. Nevertheless, scientists need to understand how the laws of physics change near the Sun.
Announced in 2009 and launched in 2018, NASA commissioned the Parker Solar Probe to do just that. The probe will operate for another seven years, collecting critical data about the Sun.
What is the Parker Solar Probe?
After its announcement in 2009, the Parker probe was successfully launched into space on August 12, 2018. It cost $1.5 billion to design and build the probe, which launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida.
Just 161 days after its launch, the probe completed its first orbit around the sun on January 19, 2019. Over the course of the mission, the probe will complete 24 orbits around the sun in 7 years.
The Parker Solar Probe was designed to sample solar winds. Scientists knew solar wind near Earth and solar wind closer to the Sun had different properties. They wanted to sample solar winds near the Sun to determine how, exactly, conditions differed.
As the probe collects data, it will go closer to the Sun than any craft before it. Data will be transmitted to NASA during and after each orbit around the Sun. Scientists at the University of Alabama in Huntsville will analyze the data to draw conclusions.
The Parker probe uses several instrument suites with the goal to better understand:
1. The physics of the Sun.
2. How particles travel through space at high speeds.
3. Why the Sun’s atmosphere is hotter than the Sun’s surface.
4. How solar wind behaves near the Sun.
Already making history
The Parker Solar Probe is already making history. It’s the first craft to collect samples from this region of space.
On October 28, 2018, the probe became the closest-ever object from Earth to orbit the Sun. Before the Parker probe, a craft had only been 27 million miles away from the Sun, a record set by Helios 2 in 1976.
In April 2019 the Parker probe will once again reach its closest point to the Sun, at 15 million miles.
It will take scientists years to analyze and draw conclusions from the probe’s data. NASA is looking into AI automation to assist scientists in analyzing the massive quantities of data.
Preliminary findings are promising, though. For example, scientists found that opposite magnetic fields appear and then vanish near the Sun. They’re seeing unusual fluctuations in solar wind turbulence near the Sun.
The Sun’s atmosphere and resulting solar winds present big challenges for astrophysicists. If humanity wants to pursue a future beyond the stars, we first need to understand the most critical star in our solar system: the Sun.