Parker Solar Probe is an extraordinary and historic mission, exploring
what is arguably the last region of the solar system to be visited by a
spacecraft, the Sun's outer atmosphere or corona as it extends out into
Launched on Aug. 12, 2018, Parker Solar Probe will repeatedly
sample the near-Sun environment, revolutionizing our knowledge and
understanding of coronal heating and of the origin and evolution of the
solar wind and answering critical questions in heliophysics that have
been ranked as top priorities for decades. Moreover, by making direct,
in-situ measurements of the region where some of the most hazardous
solar energetic particles are energized, Solar Probe will make a
fundamental contribution to our ability to characterize and forecast the
radiation environment in which future space explorers will work and live.
In 2017, the mission was named for Eugene Parker, a pioneer in Heliophysics
and the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus, Department
of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago. This is the
first NASA mission that has been named for a living individual.
Our First Visit to a Star
Two of the transformative advances in our understanding of the Sun and its
influence on the solar system were the discovery that the corona is several
hundreds of times hotter than the visible solar surface (the photosphere)
and the development — and observational confirmation — of the theory of the
corona's supersonic expansion into interplanetary space as a "solar wind."
In the decades that have followed these important milestones in solar and
space physics, the composition, properties, and structure of the solar wind
have been extensively measured, at high heliolatitudes as well as in the
ecliptic and at distances far beyond the orbit of Pluto. The corona and the
transition region above the photosphere have been imaged with unprecedentedly
high resolution, revealing a complex architecture of loops and arcades, while
photospheric magnetography has uncovered the "magnetic carpet" of fine-scale
flux bundles that underlies the corona. Observational advances have been
accompanied by advances in theory and modeling, with a broad range of models
offering plausible and competing scenarios to explain coronal heating and
solar wind acceleration.
We now know more about the corona and the solar wind than ever before. And
yet the two fundamental questions, raised in the 1940s by the discovery of
the corona's million-degree temperature and in the early 1960s by the proof
of the supersonic solar wind's existence, remain unanswered:
Why is the solar corona so much hotter
than the photosphere? And how is the solar wind accelerated?
To attempt to answer these questions, Parker Solar Probe will travel to
within 4 million miles of the Sun's surface, where the front of Parker Solar
Probe's solar shield will face temperatures approaching 2,600° Fahrenheit,
or 1,400° Celsius.
To achieve this distance, Parker Solar Probe will gradually bring its orbit
closer to the Sun using Venus' gravity. In just under seven years, Parker
Solar Probe will complete 24 highly elliptical orbits and 7 Venus gravity
assist flybys, bringing it well within the orbit of Mercury and about seven
times closer than any previous spacecraft.
At its closest approach, Parker Solar Probe will be travelling at approximately
430,000 miles per hour (~125 miles per second) and have an orbital period of 88 days.