The spacecraft is expected to reach speeds in the region of 430,000 miles per hour
The Parker Solar Probe began its mission to investigate the Sun as it launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on Saturday.
The Parker probe’s mission is to broaden our understanding of how energy and heat move through the solar corona. A key point is the investigation of what accelerates solar energetic particles and solar winds.
The satellite is named after Dr Eugene Parker, who in the 1950’s proposed that stars give off energy, he named this energy solar wind. This is their first NASA mission to be named after a living person.
The probe was launched using a Delta-IV Heavy rocket and on its path to orbit the sun will become one of the fastest human-made objects ever constructed as it reaches speeds up to 430,000 miles per hour.
The Parker probe will fly directly through the sun’s atmosphere and is expected to pass as close as 3.8 million miles from its surface.
In order to protect the spacecraft and its scientific equipment from the extreme temperatures it will experience in close proximity to our Sun, the craft is fitted with a 4.5 inch thick carbon composite heat shield. The front of the shield is capable of withstanding temperatures 1300 degrees.
The Parker probe contains an array of scientific equipment designed to measure the energy emanating from the sun at close range such as a magnetometer, a low energy plasma instrument and a suite of energetic particle instruments.
One set of scientific equipment on the probe is the Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons (SWEAP). Professor John Belcher of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is a co-investigator on the SWEAP project.
Commenting on MIT’s blog Prof Belcher said that SWEAP will: “Directly measure the properties of the plasma in the solar atmosphere during these encounters.”
“A special component of SWEAP is a small instrument that will look around the protective heat shield of the spacecraft directly at the sun, the only instrument on the spacecraft to do so. This will allow SWEAP to sweep up a sample of the atmosphere of the sun, our star, for the first time at these distances.”
“It is only by getting this close to the sun that we have a chance of answering definitely what accelerates the wind. The major question is whether thermal processes or wave acceleration processes are most important, or both,” he notes.