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.
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