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

Keep an Eye on NASA’s Newest Probe, Aiming to Fly Close to the Sun

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If only Icarus had waited till the 21st century. NASA’s Parker solar probe, which is to be launched toward the sun on Saturday, may contend with temperatures upwards of 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit when it reaches the sun’s atmosphere – also known as the corona. But it won’t get its wings singed. Advanced carbon composite shielding will keep its delicate instruments cooler than many a New York August afternoon, at 85 degrees.

If all goes as planned, the car-sized spacecraft will swing around Venus and make its first close encounter with our star in early November. The mission is expected to shatter a number of records: It will approach seven times closer to the sun than any other manmade object ever has, and it will be NASA’s fastest spacecraft, reaching top speeds of over 400,000 mph (fast enough, as NASA’s website says, to get from Washington, DC, to Philadelphia in less than one second).

The craft is named after astronomer Eugene Parker, 91, who was the first to propose that the sun was constantly ejecting a wind of charged particles, streaming past us faster than the speed of sound. The mission is aimed primarily at understanding how this solar wind gets accelerated out into space. When the particles from the sun reach us, they can create beautiful auroras as well as disruptive, satellite-damaging space weather.

The Parker probe will swing close to the sun, then out around Venus, and back again, 24 times over the next seven years. It will make its very closest approach in 2025, when it will get within 3.8 million miles of the sun’s surface. That may not seem close, but remember, we earthlings are 93 million miles away, and things can get downright broiling even at this distance.

One of the principle investigators on the mission, Ed Stone of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was a project scientist on the Voyager mission, which is exploring the solar wind at its outer extreme. The farther of the twin Voyager spacecraft, Voyager 1, is now 13 billion miles from home. In recent years it’s been collecting data on the edge of the solar wind, and it is now the only spacecraft to have entered true interstellar space.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She has written for the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology.

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