Parker Solar Probe

This was first published in the University Observer, online and in print.


Launched in August 2018, NASA’s $1.5 billion Parker Solar Probe mission is set to revolutionise our understanding of the Sun by traveling closer to it than any spacecraft has gone before.

Released from the Sun’s outer atmosphere, known as the corona, is a stream of charged particles called the solar wind, which flows out past the Earth at 1.8 million km/h. This spacecraft is named in honour of the astrophysicist Eugene Parker who coined the term “solar wind”.

The main goals of Parker Solar Probe are to investigate what gives rise to this solar wind, and also to understand how energy moves through the Sun’s corona.

In order to travel much of the 150 million kilometres to the Sun and enter the corona, Solar Parker Orbiter will use multiple gravity assists from Venus. The heat and radiation conditions experienced by the spacecraft over the course of its almost seven-year mission will be intense, with the surrounding temperatures exceeding 1,300°C at its closest approach. Advances in thermal engineering have led to the development of a carbon heat shield to protect the electronics in this harsh environment.

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Artist’s impression of the Parker Solar Probe (source)

Onboard Solar Parker Probe there is a suite of instruments, all powered by the solar panels. The purpose of these instruments is to measure quantities such as the magnetic field and to take images of its surroundings. The data are then beamed back to Earth, as Solar Parker Probe travels around the Sun at speeds up to 700,000 km/h.

This mission will improve scientists’ understanding of the corona and the solar wind. With this knowledge, researchers will then be able to better forecast space weather, which can radically affect our lives on Earth by interfering with satellites. Parker Solar Probe comes at the ideal time, because as our society becomes increasingly dependent on technology, it is crucial to understand the Sun-Earth connection to mitigate the risks posed by space weather.

Researchers using NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will also have the chance to co-ordinate observations with the European Space Agency’s upcoming Solar Orbiter Mission. Solar Orbiter will also perform close-up, high-resolution studies of the Sun and it is scheduled for launch in 2020. To protect Solar Orbiter from the high temperatures, a protective heat shield is being developed by ENBIO — a company which emerged from UCD’s Centre for New Ventures and Entrepreneurs, NovaUCD. The heat shield, composed of burnt bone charcoal from prehistoric cave paintings, will be applied to the Solar Orbiter’s titanium exterior.

“The big advantage is that the new layer ends up bonded, rather than only painted or stuck on. It effectively becomes part of the metal,” said John O’Donoghue, Managing Director of Enbio, in an article posted on the ESA website.