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NASA’s Parker Solar Probe Launches Successfully

“We’ve had to wait so long for our technology to catch up with our dreams. It’s incredible to be standing here today.”

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Why won't NASA's Parker Solar Probe melt?
Why won't NASA's Parker Solar Probe melt?VOA

A NASA spacecraft rocketed toward the sun Sunday on an unprecedented quest to get closer to our star than anything ever sent before.

The Parker Solar Probe will fly straight through the wispy edges of the corona, or outer solar atmosphere, that was visible during last August’s total solar eclipse. It eventually will get within 3.8 million (6 million kilometers) of the sun’s surface, staying comfortably cool despite the extreme heat and radiation, and allowing scientists to vicariously explore the sun in a way never before possible.

No wonder scientists consider it the coolest, hottest mission under the sun, and what better day to launch to the sun than Sunday as NASA noted.

“Fly baby girl, fly!!” project scientist Nicola Fox of Johns Hopkins University tweeted just before liftoff. She urged it to “go touch the sun!”

Protected by a revolutionary new carbon heat shield and other high-tech wonders, the spacecraft will zip past Venus in October. That will set up the first solar encounter in November. Altogether, the Parker probe will make 24 close approaches to the sun on the seven-year, $1.5 billion undertaking.

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Astrophysicist Eugene Parker sits between Johns Hopkins University project scientist Nicola Fox, left, and NASA’s science mission chief Thomas Zurbuchen, during a news conference about the Parker Solar Probe at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. VOA

Parker watches namesake go

For the second straight day, thousands of spectators jammed the launch site in the middle of the night as well as surrounding towns, including 91-year-old astrophysicist Eugene Parker for whom the spacecraft is named. He proposed the existence of solar wind, a steady, supersonic stream of particles blasting off the sun, 60 years ago.

“All I can say is, ‘Wow, here we go.’ We’re in for some learning over the next several years,” Parker said.

It was the first time NASA named a spacecraft after someone still alive, and Parker wasn’t about to let it take off without him. Saturday morning’s launch attempt was foiled by last-minute technical trouble.

“I’m just so glad to be here with him,” said NASA’s science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen. “Frankly, there’s no other name that belongs on this mission.”

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The Parker Solar Probe sits in a clean room at Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Fla., after the installation of its heat shield. VOA

The Delta IV Heavy rocket thundered into the pre-dawn darkness, thrilling onlookers for miles around. NASA needed the mighty 23-story rocket, plus a third stage, to get the diminutive Parker probe, the size of a small car and well under a ton, racing toward the sun.

From Earth, it is 93 million miles to the sun (150 million kilometers), and the Parker probe will be within 4 percent of that distance. That will be seven times closer than previous spacecraft.​

Speed record on agenda

Parker will start shattering records this fall.On its very first brush with the sun, it will come within 15.5 million miles (25 million kilometers), easily beating the current record set by NASA’s Helios 2 spacecraft in 1976. By the time Parker gets to its 22nd orbit of the sun, it will be even deeper into the corona and traveling at a record-breaking 430,000 mph (690,000 kilometers per hour).

Nothing from Planet Earth has ever hit that kind of speed.

Even Fox has difficulty comprehending the mission’s derring-do.

“To me, it’s still mind-blowing,” she said. “Even I still go, ‘Really? We’re doing that?’”

Zurbuchen considers the sun the most important star in our universe — it’s ours, after all — and so this is one of NASA’s big-time strategic missions. By better understanding the sun’s life-giving and sometimes violent nature, Earthlings can better protect satellites and astronauts in orbit, and power grids on the ground, he noted. In today’s tech-dependent society, everyone stands to benefit.

With this mission, scientists hope to unlock the many mysteries of the sun, a commonplace yellow dwarf star around 4.5 billion years old. Among the puzzlers: Why is the corona hundreds of times hotter than the surface of the sun and why is the sun’s atmosphere continually expanding and accelerating, as the University of Chicago’s Parker accurately predicted in 1958?

“The only way we can do that is to finally go up and touch the sun,” Fox said. “We’ve looked at it. We’ve studied it from missions that are close in, even as close as the planet Mercury. But we have to go there.”

The spacecraft’s heat shield will serve as an umbrella, shading the science instruments during the close, critical solar junctures. Sensors on the spacecraft will make certain the heat shield faces the sun at the right times. If there’s any tilting, the spacecraft will correct itself so nothing gets fried. With a communication lag time of 16 minutes each way, the spacecraft must fend for itself at the sun. The Johns Hopkins flight controllers in Laurel, Maryland, will be too far away to help.

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A Delta IV rocket, carrying the Parker Solar Probe, lifts off from launch complex 37 as seen during a time exposure at the Kennedy Space Center. VOA

Technology catches up to the dream

A mission to get close up and personal with our star has been on NASA’s books since 1958. The trick was making the spacecraft small, compact and light enough to travel at incredible speeds, while surviving the sun’s punishing environment and the extreme change in temperature when the spacecraft is out near Venus.

“We’ve had to wait so long for our technology to catch up with our dreams,” Fox said. “It’s incredible to be standing here today.”

More than 1 million names are aboard the spacecraft, submitted last spring by space enthusiasts, as well as photos of Parker, the man, and a copy of his 1958 landmark paper on solar wind.

“I’ll bet you 10 bucks it works,” Parker said. (VOA)

Next Story

Jupiter not as Dry as it was Predicted to be: NASA Scientists

Jupiter not as dry as earlier thought, reveals new NASA probe

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Jupiter may not be as dry as earlier shown by a NASA probe, according to the first science. (Representational Image). Pixabay

The largest planet in our solar system may not be as dry as earlier shown by a NASA probe, according to the first science results revealed by the US space agency’s Juno mission on the amount of water in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

At the equator, water makes up about 0.25 per cent of the molecules in Jupiter’s atmosphere — almost three times that of the Sun, said the study published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

These are also the first findings on the gas giant’s abundance of water since NASA’s 1995 Galileo mission suggested Jupiter might be extremely dry compared to the Sun. The comparison is based not on liquid water but on the presence of its components, oxygen and hydrogen, present in the Sun.

“We found the water in the equator to be greater than what the Galileo probe measured,” said Cheng Li, a Juno scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Because the equatorial region is very unique at Jupiter, we need to compare these results with how much water is in other regions,” Li said.

An accurate estimate of the total amount of water in Jupiter’s atmosphere has been on the wish lists of planetary scientists for decades. The figure in the gas giant represents a critical missing piece to the puzzle of our solar system’s formation.

Jupiter
These are also the first findings on the gas giant’s abundance of water since NASA’s 1995 Galileo mission suggested Jupiter might be extremely dry compared to the Sun. (Representational Image). Pixabay

Jupiter was likely the first planet to form, and it contains most of the gas and dust that was not incorporated into the Sun.

Water abundance also has important implications for the gas giant’s meteorology (how wind currents flow on Jupiter) and internal structure. While lightning — a phenomenon typically fuelled by moisture — detected on Jupiter by Voyager and other spacecraft implied the presence of water, an accurate estimate of the amount of water deep within Jupiter’s atmosphere remained elusive.

Before the Galileo probe stopped transmitting 57 minutes into its Jovian descent in December 1995, it radioed out spectrometer measurements of the amount of water in the gas giant’s atmosphere down to a depth of about 120 kilometres. The scientists working on the data were dismayed to find ten times less water than expected.

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A rotating, solar-powered spacecraft Juno was launched in 2011. Because of the Galileo probe experience, the mission seeks to obtain water abundance readings across large regions of the immense planet.

The Juno science team used data collected during Juno’s first eight science flybys of Jupiter to generate the findings. (IANS)