Science 01 Jun 2017 NASA’s histori ...

NASA’s historic mission to Sun: All you need to know

Published Jun 1, 2017, 3:30 pm IST
Updated Jun 1, 2017, 3:37 pm IST
The unmanned spacecraft will liftoff from Kennedy Space Center in Florida in July 2018.
The unmanned spacecraft will fly directly into the sun’s atmosphere called corona.
 The unmanned spacecraft will fly directly into the sun’s atmosphere called corona.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on May 31 announced to send a spacecraft to “Touch the Sun” – humanity’s first mission to the parent star – through a live-streamed event aired on NASA’s TV and posted on space agency’s website.

The unmanned spacecraft, atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket, will liftoff from Kennedy Space Center in Florida in July 2018 and will fly directly into the sun’s atmosphere called corona, which is several hundreds of time hotter than the sun’s atmosphere with temperature at 500,000 degree Celsius or higher. A 20-day launch window for the spacecraft's liftoff opens July 31, 2018.


Until NASA’s announcement yesterday, the mission was known to be called as Solar Probe Plus (SPP). It has now been renamed to Parker Solar Probe (PSP) to honour solar astrophysicist who predicted solar winds – the high-speed matter and magnetism constantly escaping the sun –in 1958.

“Placed in orbit within four million miles of the sun’s surface, and facing heat and radiation unlike any spacecraft in history, the spacecraft will explore the sun’s outer atmosphere and make critical observations that will answer decades-old questions about the physics of how stars work,” said NASA. “The resulting data will improve forecasts of major space weather events that impact life on Earth, as well as satellites and astronauts in space.”

In order to obtain valuable data about the Sun, the probe needs to sustain exceeding 1,400 degree Celsius and the star’s radiation. To do so, NASA has covered the probe with an 11.5cm thick carbon-composite heat shield.

Travelling at a speed of 430,000 mph, the probe will make seven flybys of the sun over a seven-year period, in what NASA describes as a “mission of extremes”.

The spacecraft will measure plasma waves and high-energy particles, and carry a white light imager to capture images of the structures through which it is flying, according to Nicola Fox, mission project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

"We will brush closely by it," she said at an event in Chicago to unveil the mission, which NASA has touted as promising to provide humanity's closest-ever observations of a star.

Interestingly, this will not be the only mission underway to get close to the Sun. Apart from it, the European Space Agency (ESA), is also working on own mission to the Sun. The ESA mission will be called Solar Orbiter and will take place in February 2019.

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