Parker Solar Probe: understanding the Sun

Parker Solar Probe: understanding the Sun
The probe will complete 25 orbits near the Sun on this mission, combined with flybys near the Earth’s orbit, during which the collected data can be sent to scientists.

Parker Solar Probe will soon become the spacecraft to travel the closest to the Sun, by positioning itself a little over 6 million kilometres from our star’s surface.

The main goal of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is to reach inside the plasma corona surrounding the Sun. The probe will attempt to solve one of the biggest mysteries of contemporary physics: how can the Sun’s atmosphere temperature rise above a million degrees when that of its surface only reaches 6,000°C?

Astrophysicists have previously proposed that the corona could be heated by electromagnetic waves produced on the surface, although it is impossible to test this hypothesis without going to this extreme environment, as the probe will.

Measurements from the Parker Solar Probe will also make it possible to study other phenomena, such as the sources of solar wind.

When will the probe begin taking measurements?

The Parker Solar Probe will reach its target in November 2018, just three months after its launch from Cape Canaveral, USA, scheduled for 11 August, on board NASA’s Delta IV Heavy rocket.

The probe will complete 25 orbits near the Sun on this mission, combined with flybys near the Earth’s orbit, during which the collected data can be sent to scientists. Its last three orbits will take it very near the Sun, just 6 million kilometres from the solar surface.

This mission collaborated with French laboratories, including:

  • LPC2E
  • CNRS
  • CNES and
  • Université d’Orléans

This collaboration saw the development of an instrument aboard the Parker Solar Probe, a search-coil magnetometer for measuring variations in the corona’s magnetic field. These measurements will be critical to understand how the corona can be heated to temperatures above a million degrees.

Additionally, researchers from French institutes contributed to the development of a radio receptor and two spectrometers produced in the United States, they will also be involved in the utilisation of the images taken by the probe’s on-board camera. The solar oven from CNRS has also enabled the testing of Parker Solar Probe’s materials and sensors in conditions similar to those they will face near the Sun.

The research will also benefit another solar exploration mission planned for 2020, the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter mission, which will set out for the Sun with various measuring instruments developed by several French laboratories.

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