September 27, 2023

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How NASA’s Parker Solar Probe Makes History

How NASA’s Parker Solar Probe Makes History

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe marks five successful years in space, achieving milestones such as touching the sun and collecting more than twice the data expected. The mission’s ongoing flight promises to deepen our understanding of space weather and the Sun’s effects on Earth. Credit: NASA GSFC/CIL/Brian Monroe

NASAThe Parker Solar Probe, launched five years ago, has made notable achievements, including becoming the first spacecraft to “touch the sun.” It collected vital data on the sun’s upper atmosphere and solar wind, breaking speed and distance in the process. The mission reflects decades of innovation and will continue to advance our understanding of the Sun’s relationship with Earth.

On August 12, 2018 — five years ago this week — NASA’s Parker solar probe lifted off atop a powerful Delta 4 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Launching before dawn into the skies over the Florida coast marked the beginning of a game-changing mission to unlock the secrets of the solar wind — and the culmination of decades of development to craft a robotic explorer capable of enduring heat and radiation as close to the Sun as no other spacecraft before.

Designs for the “solar probe” first started coming together in 1962, just four years after the National Research Council’s Space Studies Board first proposed a mission to explore the environment near the sun. But the technology to carry out such a bold endeavor, especially the physical components of an effective heat shield, was not available — until now.

Development and message design

Physical advances in the 1970s allowed NASA to begin considering flybys close enough to the atmosphere to directly sample the Sun’s upper atmosphere – the corona – and the solar wind. The initial mission science definition was formed in a 1978 workshop at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).Jet Propulsion Laboratory), but the means to carry out the mission would take decades to come together—with JPL and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) developing concepts for a nuclear-powered sun skimmer between 1982 and 2005.

Solar probe concepts

spacecraft evolution: Solar probe designs have changed through the decades, based on the technologies and mission plans of the time. NASA’s directive for a spacecraft to circle the sun led to the design of the Parker Solar Probe mission, which this week celebrates five years in space. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

In 2007, NASA asked APL to brainstorm a concept for a spacecraft that could be comfortable sunbeaming, and from that — with the right mix of groundbreaking thermal shielding technologies and clever mission design — developed the Parker Solar Probe mission that is now the solar probe mission. first half of the decade.

“No matter what it looks like, the core of the mission has always been a close encounter with the sun,” said Jim Kinnison, systems engineer for the Parker Solar Probe mission at APL. “It took significant technology development, innovative mission design, and an engineering plan to reduce risk—and now, the Parker team is achieving a vision of exploration set at the dawn of the space age.”

Achievements and discoveries

After five years of flying across The hottest and dustiest spaces From the inner solar system, the Parker Solar Probe — which in 2021 becomes the first spacecraft to “touch the sun” — is not just surviving, it’s thriving. The spacecraft has returned more than twice the amount of data scientists expected, making the discoveries crucial to understanding source characteristics of the solar wind. The spacecraft recently completed its 16th science orbit, out of 24 planned during the initial mission. And on August 21, Parker will pass the photo Venus to assist gravity, a movement that would tighten its orbit around the sun and allow it to take measurements of Venus’s surface and atmosphere.

Parker Solar Probe thermal protection system

Probe protection: Engineers from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory prepare the Parker Solar Probe thermal protection system — a mission-enabled technology — for space environment testing in a thermal vacuum chamber at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Maryland, in January 2018. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/ Ed Whitman

Thanks to that gravitational assist, on September 27, Parker Solar Probe will be traveling at 394.742 miles per hour as it approaches 4.5 million miles from the sun’s surface — breaking its own speed and distance record around the sun. It will eventually come within just 3.8 million miles of the sun, speeding at 430,000 miles per hour, in December 2024.

Parker Solar Probe spacecraft in a cleanroom

Achievements and Discoveries An actual Parker Solar Probe spacecraft is prepared for launch in the cleanroom at Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Florida, in July 2018. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

Impact and future prospects

“We are in a golden age for the exploration of heliophysics,” said Nour El-Rawafi, Parker Solar Probe project scientist at APL. “In just five years, the Parker Solar Probe has changed our understanding of the sun and the activities that relate to and influence life on Earth. As we get closer and closer to the solar surface, we will learn more about the properties of the sun itself, but this data will also greatly improve our knowledge of space weather and our ability to live and work in space.”

The Parker Solar Probe was developed as part of NASA’s Living With a Star program to explore aspects of the Sun-Earth system that directly affect life and society. The Living With a Star program is managed by the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. APL designed, built, and operated the spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA.

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