When Icarus flew too close to the sun, the wax binding his wings melted and he plummeted into the ocean and died. While just a myth, the lesson is hard to dispute: even though it makes life possible, the sun is deadly, and trying to get close to it doesn’t end well. Next year, NASA will attempt to rewrite the myth by sending a probe into the sun’s atmosphere.
Artist illustration of Parker Solar Probe. Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
The Parker Solar Probe, named after astrophysicist Eugene Parker, will launch sometime between July 31 and August 19, 2018, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Over a period of seven years, the probe will fly by the sun seven times, getting to within four million miles of its surface. When the probe flies into the sun’s corona, or outer atmosphere, it will take measurements and pictures that will provide scientists with insights into how solar winds work and where they come from. From this vantage point, the probe will be able to harvest data about how solar wind speeds increase and break the sonic barrier. Such information will also help researchers predict the far-reaching effects of solar winds, which can impact our satellites, as well as technology here on Earth.
Mission Logo. Credit: NASA/APL
The probe will also have an up-close view of solar energetic particles (SEP), some of which reach 80% of light speed thanks to coronal mass ejections and solar flares. Solar particle events increase radiation, often to dangerous levels. Scientists haven’t been able to confirm how these particles work, but they believe they’re powered by magnetic fields. They hope to figure out what increases the speed of both solar particles and solar winds, which will involve a greater understanding of what happens as the sun releases energy, which then moves through its corona. “Parker Solar Probe is going to answer questions about solar physics that we’ve puzzled over for more than six decades,” says Project Scientist Nicola Fox.
Illustration of solar probe leaving Earth. Credit: JHU/APL
Given that there’s only one star close enough for us to examine, the potential implications of this mission go beyond the sun’s effects on Earth. Scientists hope the probe will shed light on their understanding of stars in general, as well as how stars affect surrounding planets and systems. According to NASA, the mission “will answer decades-old questions about the physics of how stars work.”
This mission is fraught with danger, as the probe will encounter temperatures as high as 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, as well as solar radiation. This means the spacecraft needs some heavy-duty armor— 4.5 inches of carbon composite will protect the probe’s instruments. This will allow the spacecraft to get about seven times closer than any previous craft. Icarus would be impressed.