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Weird solar science: How NASA’s Parker probe will dive through the Sun’s atmosphere

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NASA’s Parker Solar Probe set on ‘the Sun’

NASA is set to launch its Parker Solar Probe on a historic mission that is the ‘touch of the Sun.’ The solar probe will be the first spacecraft to fly by the Sun (the corona is the outermost part of the atmosphere of the star.

CAPE CANAVERAL – NASA Parker Solar Probe will soon blast off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on an epic journey that you will see that it is diving through the outer part of the solar atmosphere.

The launch window will open early Saturday. The $1.5 billion mission will be humanity closer to the Sun than ever before. Scientists have spent many years inventing technologies that protect the car-sized spacecraft of direct combustion, when the in the Sun’s corona.

One of Parker’s most important defense is to a white heat shield that deflects heat. “The heat shield is made of a few of the different materials – carbon-carbon, that is a lot like the graphite epoxy you might see in your golf clubs or your tennis racket, but it has just been super heated,” said Betsy Congdon, lead engineer for the heat shield at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. “The inside is a carbon foam, which is just a different kind of carbon fiber and is actually about 97 percent air. It is a very lightweight way of creating a very strong structure.”

NASA’S PARKER SOLAR PROBE ‘TOUCH THE SUN’ ON HISTORIC MISSION

While the temperature of the Sun (the corona is a mind-boggling 2 million to 3 million degrees Fahrenheit, Parker will only have to deal with a moderate heat of about 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The Sun, like other stars, is made of plasma, and these plasma-particles are highly dispersed in the corona. This means that the solar probe will not be subject to a full operation of the corona’s temperature.

As NASA explains, temperature and heat are two different things – while the temperature is a measure for the heat is all about energy transfer. Because the plasma particles in the corona are fairly spread out, the amount of heat Parker has to deal with is considerably less than the region’s temperature.

“The corona and where we are going, is actually not so close to everything, there are only a few of the particles. If we think about it, that are very hot, but we are not hitting many of them,” said Congdon.

NASA’S PARKER SOLAR PROBE: CAPE CANAVERAL PREPARES FOR EPIC MISSION TO THE SUN

Circulating water is also used for the holding of Parker solar panels from overheating. “In principle, the water flowing behind the solar panels and the radiators, so the water warms up if it is behind the solar cells, and then cooled in the radiators, so the heat transfer is happening, much like the veins in your body,” Congdon explained.

In addition, specialised software on the spacecraft will comply with the heat shield pointing in the right direction. “We are too far away to joystick in place, so it is always sensing if the heat shield is in the correct position and correct itself if it is not,” Congdon said. “There are these things called solar limb sensors that are just sticking out, just on the edge of the shadow as that get lit the spaceship know, ‘oh, I’m going in the wrong direction’ and can actually right itself.”

With the solar defense up and running, Parker ‘ s tools work at room temperature.

NASA’S PARKER SOLAR PROBE SET TO WRITE A NEW CHAPTER IN CAPE CANAVERAL HISTORY

Parker will blast off aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The 65-minute launch window for the mission opens at 3:33 pm EDT on Aug. 11, 2018.

Northrop Grumman is providing the rocket’s third stage. Ignition of the third stage is planned 38 minutes and 58 seconds after the launch.

The spacecraft is scheduled to reach the Sun in November. The use of Venus’ gravity, Parker will complete seven flybys more than seven years gradually its orbit closer to the Sun. At its closest approach, the probe will travel in approximately 430,000 km / h – a record for a human-made object.

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On its closest flyby in 2024, Parker will come within 3.8 million miles of the surface of the Sun. This is seven times closer than the previous closest spacecraft, Helios 2, which came within 27 million miles of the Sun in 1976.

The average distance between the Sun and the Earth is 93 million miles.

The Sun, the corona, which can be seen during a total solar eclipse, is mostly hidden by the bright light of the star from the surface. Scientists expect to collect valuable data from the mission, shedding new insight on the Sun’s potential to disrupt satellites and spacecraft, and electronics and communication on Earth.

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The government space agency is hoping the probe will give an answer on what the scientists describe as “the coronal heating problem.” One of the most special aspects of the Sun is that the atmosphere is much hotter the farther it stretches from the star’s surface, according to NASA.

“The temperatures in the corona – the thin, outermost layer of the solar atmosphere – spike upwards of 2 million degrees Fahrenheit, while only 1,000 miles below the underlying surface and simmer on a balmy 10,000 F,” the space agency explains. “How the Sun manages this performance is one of the biggest unanswered questions in astronomy.”

Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers

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