Parker Solar Probe: NASA Spacecraft That Will 'Touch' Sun Set to Launch

NASA's Parker Solar Probe, a spacecraft that will "touch" the sun, is scheduled to launch between August 11 and August 23 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The spacecraft is about the size of a car and will come within four million miles of the sun's surface—more than seven times closer than any spacecraft has been able to travel before, according to NASA.

After 60 years in the making, the Parker Solar Probe will take off from the Kennedy Space Center between August 11 and August 23 in the morning anywhere from 4:00 a.m. EST to 6:00 a.m. EST, a timing that was chosen specifically for the mission. This timing sends the Parker Solar Probe towards Venus, its first target, according to a NASA statement.

"The launch energy to reach the Sun is 55 times that required to get to Mars, and two times that needed to get to Pluto," Yanping Guo from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, who designed the mission trajectory, said in a NASA statement. "During summer, Earth and the other planets in our solar system are in the most favorable alignment to allow us to get close to the Sun."

Only in recent decades has the hope of sending a probe to the sun become a realistic possibility thanks to a highly developed heat protector. The Thermal Protection System, installed on June 27, is about eight feet in diameter and tasked with safeguarding the probe by casting a shadow on the spacecraft like an umbrella shields a person from the rain.

While the heat shield will experience temperatures of about 2,500 degrees Fahrenheitt—about seven times hotter than your oven on Thanksgiving—the spacecraft will only be 85 degrees Fahrenheit thanks to the protection system, according to NASA.

During its journey to the sun, the Parker Solar Probe will travel up to 430,000 miles per hour. At that speed, traveling from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C.would take one second.

An image of the Parker Solar Probe set to launch in August and travel closer to the sun than any spacecraft before. APL/NASA GSFC

Nicky Fox, Parker Solar Probe's project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, said in a NASA statement that the sun's "energy is flowing past our world" and although we've been able to see the solar wind encircling the earth's poles, we don't know very much about it.

"We don't have a strong understanding of the mechanisms that drive that wind toward us, and that's what we're heading out to discover," he explained.

The Parker Solar Probe has been equipped with state-of-the-art technology designed to answer three main questions about the star, including:

  • How does solar wind accelerate to supersonic speeds in the sun's outermost part, the corona?
  • If the sun's energy is produced at its core, why is the corona hundreds of times hotter than its visible surface?
  • What are the mechanisms at work driving the acceleration of solar energetic particles?

Four suites of instruments were developed to find the answer to these three questions: The FIELDS, WISPR, SWEAP, and ISʘIS. FIELDS measures electric and magnetic fields around the spacecraft, capturing waves and turbulence to understand the fields associated with waves, shocks and magnetic reconnection.

WISPR is short for Wide-Field Imager for Parker Solar Probe. It takes images of structures and is the only imaging instrument making the journey. SWEAP instruments count the most abundant particles in the solar wind and measure properties such as velocity, density, and temperature. This will help improve our understanding of solar wind and coronal plasma.

Last but not least is the ISʘIS suite. No, that dot in the middle of the "O" is not a poppy seed from your morning bagel that found its way onto your computer screen. The symbol, an "O" with a dot in the middle, signifies the sun. ISʘIS measures electrons, protons, and ions to understand the particles' lifecycles.

"By studying our star, we can learn not only more about the sun," Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, said in a statement. "We can also learn more about all the other stars throughout the galaxy, the universe and even life's beginnings."

Escorting the Parker Solar Probe to the sun will be a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket, a launch vehicle used to deliver NASA payloads into orbit. On July 30, the Parker Solar Probe was moved from Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Florida, to Space Launch Complex 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, according to NASA. On July 31, it was lifted and attached to the top of the rocket. The journey will last about seven years.