NASA unveils its latest spacecraft, to ‘touch the sun’

1 Jun 2017

Illustration of the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft approaching the sun. Image: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

NASA has unveiled its latest probe that hopes to boldly go where no spacecraft has gone before, within ‘touching distance’ of the sun.

While Icarus is famous for having flown to close to the sun, resulting in his wax wings melting and him plunging to his death, a new NASA spacecraft aims to be a lot better prepared.

The newly unveiled Parker Solar Probe is named in honour of astrophysicist Eugene Parker, who is credited with discovering solar winds and is now the only living person to have their name on a NASA spacecraft.

Its mission will be to solve one of the biggest solar mysteries: why is the surface of the sun a ‘cool’ 5,500 degrees Celsius, but its outer atmosphere (known as the corona) a sweltering 2m degrees Celsius?

A novel craft, the Parker Solar Probe must be built with humankind’s strongest materials in order to survive the sheer heat emitted by our closest star.

What is the probe made up of?

Around the size of a typical refrigerator, the probe will fly seven times closer to the sun than previous solar probes, and will be constructed from a carbon-carbon composite to help protect its instruments. This composite will act as an umbrella of sorts, measuring 2.5 metres wide, with a thickness of 11.5cm. It will be pointed at the sun to take the brunt of the heat and radiation.

Other instruments found on the craft include a cup that will be able to measure the speed, density and temperature of the powerful solar winds; a wide-field imager to capture images of the sun’s corona; and a particle detector to measure their speed and origin.

Moving at close to 700,000kph, the Parker Solar Probe will be expected to complete a total of 24 orbits over a period of six years and – like many spacecraft before it – will eventually hurtle towards the sun and end its life.

Likely to be surprises

NASA said that it plans to launch the spacecraft during a 20-day window that starts on 31 July 2018.

If it launches on that date, the craft would make its closest approach a little under 6m km from its surface on 19 December 2024.

Commenting on the mission, Parker himself said: “The solar probe is going to a region of space that has never been explored before.

“It’s very exciting that we’ll finally get a look. One would like to have some more detailed measurements of what’s going on in the solar wind. I’m sure that there will be some surprises. There always are.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic