Tech & Science Parker Solar Probe: NASA's mission to solve a fundamental puzzle of physics

05:57  10 august  2018
05:57  10 august  2018 Source:

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  NASA’s sun-kissing spacecraft will go 250 times faster than a bullet when it hits its stride The Parker Solar Probe is finally on its way. Long before dawn on Sunday, the Delta IV Heavy rocket stood ready again. This is the second most powerful rocket in operation, bested only by SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. This time, as the engineers ran through their last checklists, all systems were go—and the spacecraft was ready to sail toward the Sun.

Parker Solar Probe (previously Solar Probe , Solar Probe Plus, or Solar Probe +, abbreviated PSP) is a planned NASA robotic spacecraft to probe the outer corona of the Sun.

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A burst of solar material leaps off the sun in what's known as a prominence eruption.© Provided by ABC News A burst of solar material leaps off the sun in what's known as a prominence eruption.

Around 2,500 years ago, ancient Greek astronomers thought the bright glowing ball in the sky was generated by a red-hot stone. We've come a long way since then, but the sun still holds many mysteries.

NASA hopes a new spacecraft will unravel some of those secrets.

Due to launch on Saturday around 5:30pm (AEST), the Parker Solar Probe is destined to plunge into the sun's atmosphere.

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The car-sized spacecraft, named after astrophysicist Eugene Parker, will come closer to the sun than any other mission in history — making its closest approach in late 2024.

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NASA ’ s Parker Solar Probe will be the first-ever mission to "touch" the sun. Credit: The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. This video is public domain. Learn more about the Parker Solar Probe : www. nasa .gov/solarprobe.

The mission was previously named Solar Probe Plus. But during an announcement today at the University of Chicago, NASA associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said the Parker Solar Probe is designed, built and operated by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

Travelling at a dizzying speed of more than 720,000 kilometres per hour, the probe will travel within less than 6.4 million kilometres of the sun's surface.

The mission hopes to shed light on why the atmosphere — or corona — is so much hotter than the sun's surface.

"It is one of those fundamental puzzles," said Michael Wheatland, a solar astrophysicist at the University of Sydney.

"We don't understand the physics of that process."

A shining nuclear reactor

Our sun provides the energy for life as we know it. But as far as stars go, it's ordinary, says astronomer Jonti Horner of the University of Southern Queensland.

"The sun is a bit more massive than average, a bit brighter than average, but nothing to write home about," Dr Horner said.

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An artist's illustration of NASA ' s Parker Solar Probe spacecraft, formerly known as Solar Probe Plus, studying the sun. The mission is scheduled to launch in July 2018. Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

" Parker Solar Probe is going to answer questions about solar physics that we've puzzled over for more than six decades," Parker Solar " To solve these mysteries, Solar Probe + will actually enter the corona," program scientist Lika Guhathakurta of NASA Headquarters said in a 2008 statement.

Energy in the sun is generated by nuclear fusion. Atoms of hydrogen are jostled together under high pressure and temperatures up to 15 million degrees Celsius, forming helium.

That nuclear process was only worked out in the 1940s by German physicist Hans Bethe, after the initial development of quantum theory, Dr Wheatland said.

And the specific reaction was confirmed at the particle level more than 70 years later in 2014, by scientists working at the Borexino detector in Italy.

Photons generated by this reaction stream out of the core of the sun, where they are constantly absorbed and re-emitted, mainly as gamma rays.

As they move higher, the photons shorten in wavelength and become visible light. It's a slow process that can take up to a million years.

The outer third of the sun is a seething mass of gas, which rises to the surface like bubbles in boiling porridge. At the photosphere, where temperatures reach around 5,700 degrees Celsius,photons fly free — and from there they reach Earth within 8 minutes.

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NASA and its mission partners have analyzed and approved an extended launch window for Parker Solar Probe until Aug. 23, 2018 (previously Aug. 19). The spacecraft is scheduled to launch no earlier than Aug.

Learn all about NASA ' s Parker Solar Probe mission , which the agency aims to launch in July 2018. The spacecraft will get seven times closer to the sun than any probe ever has before. This information could help researchers solve two longstanding mysteries: How the solar wind is

Meanwhile, above the sun's surface, the temperature decreases to a minimum of 3,700 degrees Celsius. And then something strange happens.

Curious case of the corona

As you move further out into the corona — the fuzzy fringe you can see peeking out from behind the moon during a total solar eclipse — temperatures can reach several million degrees.

Despite the fact we have sophisticated models, remote sensing observatories and spacecraft that observe the sun 24/7, we still don't know why this happens.

But there are two main hypotheses for the Parker Solar Probe to explore.

"We've sort of pinned it down to be wave heating, or continual mini explosions like very small-scale solar flares," Dr Wheatland said.

"The waves are generated below the photosphere, and then propagate up into the solar corona and somehow give up their energy to cause heating."

The tiny explosions, on the other hand, could be generated by the magnetic field lines that criss-cross the sun's surface.

Called "nanoflares", they are believed to arise when those magnetic lines snap and reconnect.

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"Eugene Parker was well-known for his hypothesis that nanoflares occur continuously in the corona, due to a braiding of magnetic field lines," Dr Wheatland said.

"It's not clear which process is dominant. There is some evidence that both of those are are going on."

Secret of speedy solar winds

The mystery doesn't stop at the corona.

"That outer atmosphere of the sun is not gravitationally bound, it's continually expanding into space," Dr Wheatland explained.

But we don't understand how or why this constant stream of high-energy particles and plasma, known as the solar wind, accelerates.

"Most stars have winds, so it's an important thing to understand in astrophysics," he said.

"[The Parker Solar Probe] will provide measurements of the solar wind over a long period of time so it will provide a lot of information on the makeup of the solar wind and the acceleration process."

The solar wind also carries the sun's magnetic field far out into space — where it can cause trouble here on Earth.

"It constantly flows past the Earth and it interacts with the Earth's magnetic field," Dr Wheatland said.

That interaction is at its most intense when it's supercharged by a violent solar outburst called a coronal mass ejection, or CME.

Solar storms and space weather

The surface of the sun is a seething swirling ball of plasma, punctuated periodically by cooler, darker patches known as sunspots.

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Throughout its seven-year mission , NASA ’ s Parker Solar Probe will swoop through the Sun’s atmosphere 24 times, getting closer to our star than any spacecraft has gone before. Two of the most fundamental mysteries – which scientists hope Parker Solar Probe will help solve – are the coronal

The Parker Solar Probe mission is set to launch in 2018. Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Nasa ’ s 2018 mission to the Sun has been named after the astrophysicist who first proposed the theory of solar wind, Eugene Parker .

"The sunspots define active regions on the sun," Dr Wheatland said. "These locations are where solar flares and CMEs occur."

The intense activity within sunspots arises because of magnetic field lines, rising up from below the sun's surface.

Large loops of material called prominences arc off the surface of the sun and follow those magnetic field lines.

As the surface of the sun rotates, these lines get twisted.

"The magnetic field is continually stressed, essentially from below, by the motion of gas at the photosphere," Dr Wheatland said.

"At some point it becomes too stressed and you get a sudden release of energy: a solar flare."

And sometimes, that release of energy is so great that material is spewed far out into space as a CME.

"We don't understand how CMEs are triggered," Dr Wheatland said.

"And we'd like to understand it because it is important to predict when these events will occur, because of their impact on space weather events."

So-called "space weather" — geomagnetic storms caused by the interplay between the sun and the Earth's magnetic fields — can produce effects ranging from beautiful aurorae at our poles, to the destruction of telecommunication systems.

CMEs are not a threat to life, but they are to technology, Dr Horner said.

"There's a lot of money and a lot of thought that goes into understanding space weather," he said.

"If you're putting a billion-dollar satellite up there, you want to know what's going on."

According to Dr Horner, we're fortunate that our little star is actually pretty boring.

"You do get sunspots and solar maximum and solar minimum, but most stars are more variable than the sun," he said.

Sunspot activity broadly rises and falls in an 11-year cycle — and we are now approaching solar minimum, a relatively quiet time.

A snapshot of stellar evolution

The better we can understand our sun, the better we can understand other stars as well, Dr Horner said.

"The sun is the only star we can study up close and personal," he said.

"Anything we can do to better understand how the solar corona works or how the solar wind works can be fed into the work we're doing with other stars."

At around 4.6 billion years old, our sun has reached middle age.

From an astronomical point of view, we know very little about its behaviour over the long term, Dr Horner said.

"We've only had the technology to properly observe the sun in detail for a couple of hundred years, which in the lifetime of the sun is less than a heartbeat."

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