NASA’s Latest Probe Will Examine the Sun, Survive Intense Heat

The Parker Solar Probe launches successfully carrying instruments that might make our star a bit less mysterious.

Since the late 1950s NASA has wanted to take a closer look at our sun. But, the sun is hot, and it only gets more so closer to its surface. As you can imagine, that has caused a six-decade delay in sending a probe to study it up close.

Now, that’s changed.

NASA launched the Parker Solar Probe, a 685kg spacecraft, that will be the first to fly into the sun’s low solar corona. During its mission, the probe will attempt to complete three tasks: “trace the flow of energy that heats the corona and accelerates the solar wind,” “determine the structure and dynamics of the magnetic fields at the sources of solar wind” and “determine what mechanisms accelerate and transport energetic particles.”

To make these observations, the probe will carry five instruments, each of which has to be shielded from the intense radiation beaming from the sun. The object that provides this cover is an 11.4cm thick, reinforced carbon-carbon composite that can withstand temperatures near 1,370 °C. Because of its close proximity to the sun, and the eight-minute signal transit time between Parker and Earth, researchers have given the probe more autonomy to guide itself than any craft ever launched. These autonomous controls should give Parker the best chance of keeping its instruments functional throughout the course of its scientific lifecycle. 

While Earthbound observers were in awe of Parker as it left Cape Canaveral aboard a massive Delta IV Heavy rocket—the world’s second highest capacity rocket—the probe will eventually reach a top speed of 700,000 km/h as it makes its closest approach to the sun (6.2M km).

During the next six years and 321 days, Parker will attempt to reveal some of our star’s deepest mysteries. As the actions of it become more clear, it’s likely that we’ll gain a better understanding of stars flung across the Milky Way and our universe as a whole. Not a bad return for a $1.5 billion project.