UC Berkeley physicist Stuart Bale discusses the FIELDS instruments aboard the Parker Solar Probe. Designed and built at the Space Sciences Laboratory, the instruments will measure electric and magnetic fields in the outer atmosphere of the sun to understand the corona and solar wind. (Applied Physics Laboratory video, Johns Hopkins University)
On August 11, NASA plans to launch Earth’s first spacecraft to venture inside the orbits of Venus and Mercury to touch the very edge of the sun’s fiery corona.
Outfitted with instruments designed and built at the University of California, Berkeley, the Parker Solar Probe will achieve a goal that space scientists have dreamed about for decades: to get close enough to the sun to learn how the turbulent surface we see from Earth dumps its energy into the corona and heats it to nearly 2 million degrees Fahrenheit, spawning the solar wind that continually bombards our planet.
“This is a piece of heliophysics science we all really wanted for a long time, since the 1950s,” said Stuart Bale, a UC Berkeley professor of physics, former director of the campus’s Space Sciences Laboratory and one of four principal investigators for the instruments aboard the mission. “For me personally, I’ve been working on the probe since it was approved in 2010, but I really spent a large part of my career getting ready for it.”
At 3:31 AM Eastern Time on August 12, after a one day delay, the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft took off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for its “Mission to Touch the Sun”. On board two instrument suites, FIELDS and SWEAP, with many of its team members working out of the UC Berkeley Space Sciences Lab. Initial reports are that systems are nominal. Some early milestones achieved, Fairing Separation, Solar Array Deploy, Boost by the Third Stage and Separation from same. Over the next days and month, instruments from not only UC Berkeley but others will start to be turned on and checked out. Deployments will happen and Instruments checked out. By December we should be receiving our first data from the spacecraft. Congratulations to everyone that worked on this milestone project.
Above video (48 seconds) from Sergio Leite, friend of SSL. Below NASA-TV (7 minutes)
This spacecraft is full of cutting-edge technology, from its heat shield down to its guidance and control systems. It also carries four suites of advanced instruments designed to study the Sun in a multitude of ways.
1. Measuring particles
Two of Parker Solar Probe’s instrument suites are focused on measuring particles – electrons and ions – within the corona.
One of these particle-measuring instrument suites is SWEAP (Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons). SWEAP counts the most common particles in the solar wind – the Sun’s constant outflow of material – and measures their properties, like velocity, density and temperature. Gathering this information about solar wind particles will help scientists better understand why the solar wind reaches supersonic speeds and exactly which part of the Sun the particles come from.
We’re less than a month away from the launch of Parker Solar Probe! NASA’s Launch Services Program is hard at work getting the spacecraft ready for launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy. Follow along with our countdown to T-zero! nasa.gov/solarprobe
A Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket, carried underneath a modified L-1011 airplane, departed Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on June 6 on the way to Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. The rocket and carrier jet returned to Vandenberg on June 8 after engineers encountered a technical problem with the launch vehicle during the ferry flight. Credit: NASA/Randy Beaudoin
NASA and Northrop Grumman are expected to base the launch of an air-dropped Pegasus rocket with a NASA science satellite from Cape Canaveral later this year, after originally trying to get the mission into space from a remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The space agency has not announced the move, but three officials involved in the mission said the launch of NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer — ICON — a small satellite instrumented to study the link between weather on Earth and conditions at the edge of space, is expected to shift from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean to Cape Canaveral.
The air-launched rocket was supposed to send the ICON satellite into orbit June 14. The Pegasus XL rocket was to take off from a U.S. military airfield on Kwajalein Atoll, located in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean around 2,400 miles (3,900 kilometers) southwest of Honolulu, under an L-1011 carrier jet, then drop from the belly of the aircraft and fire into orbit.
A mission 60 years in the making, Parker #SolarProbe will make a historic journey to the Sun’s corona. Discover how a recently-installed heat shield will keep our spacecraft and its instruments at a relatively comfortable temperature of approximately 85 degrees Fahrenheit
The first launch opportunity is just under four weeks away and final preparations are under way. The Thermal Protective Shield, TPS, has been installed to protect the spacecraft from the intense heat of the sun.
In a background magnetic field, represented by the cyan arrows, two electrons are propagating to the right, executing identical gyromotion. A circularly polarized electromagnetic wave approaches the upper electron from the left.
Encircling Earth are two enormous rings — called the Van Allen radiation belts — of highly energized ions and electrons. Various processes can accelerate these particles to relativistic speeds, which endanger spacecraft unlucky enough to enter these giant bands of damaging radiation. Scientists had previously identified certain factors that might cause particles in the belts to become highly energized, but they had not known which cause dominates.
Now, with new research from NASA’s Van Allen Probes and Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms — THEMIS — missions, published in Geophysical Research Letters, the verdict is in. The main culprit is a process known as local acceleration, caused by electromagnetic waves called chorus waves. Named after their characteristic rising tones, reminiscent of chirping birds, chorus waves speed up the particles pushing them along like a steady hand repeatedly pushing a swing. This process wasn’t a widely accepted theory before the Van Allen Probes mission.
Establishing the main cause of the radiation belt enhancements provides key information for models that forecast space weather — and thus protect our technology in space.
As we develop more and more powerful tools to peer beyond our solar system, we learn more about the seemingly endless sea of faraway stars and their curious casts of orbiting planets. But there’s only one star we can travel to directly and observe up close — and that’s our own: the Sun.
Two upcoming missions will soon take us closer to the Sun than we’ve ever been before, providing our best chance yet at uncovering the complexities of solar activity in our own solar system and shedding light on the very nature of space and stars throughout the universe.
Together, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe and ESA’s (the European Space Agency) Solar Orbiter may resolve decades-old questions about the inner workings of our nearest star. Their comprehensive, up-close study of the Sun has important implications for how we live and explore: Energy from the Sun powers life on Earth, but it also triggers space weather events that can pose hazard to technology we increasingly depend upon. Such space weather can disrupt radio communications, affect satellites and human spaceflight, and — at its worst — interfere with power grids. A better understanding of the fundamental processes at the Sun driving these events could improve predictions of when they’ll occur and how their effects may be felt on Earth.
“Our goal is to understand how the Sun works and how it affects the space environment to the point of predictability,” said Chris St. Cyr, Solar Orbiter project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This is really a curiosity-driven science.”
Parker Solar Probe is slated to launch in the summer of 2018, and Solar Orbiter is scheduled to follow in 2020. These missions were developed independently, but their coordinated science objectives are no coincidence: Parker Solar Probe and Solar Orbiter are natural teammates.