Solar flares pose a considerable threat to modern civilizations, and by more comprehensively understanding solar weather, scientists can better predict when and where the flares will occur. To gain this increased understanding, NASA is launching the Parker Solar Probe on a nearly seven-year mission.
A study performed by the National Academy of Sciences found, “Without advanced warning a huge solar event could cause two trillion dollars in damage to the U.S. alone, and the eastern seaboard of the U.S. could be without power for a year.” By sending a probe into the corona of the sun, scientists will be able to witness and record where solar wind, flares and coronal mass ejections occur more accurately than ever before.
The Sun is roughly 93 million miles away from Earth, and to get the probe to its desired destination, NASA has selected the second most powerful and among the most reliable rockets currently in the human arsenal: the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy. The mission is set for liftoff from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station this summer and is expected to cease transmitting after its fiery demise in mid-June 2025.
Through the course of its nearly seven-year mission, Parker Solar Probe will make a series of orbits around Venus, Earth’s sister planet. These repeated planetary rendezvous allow for never-before-seen data to be gathered and critical corrections to the probes’ trajectory to be made, since launching directly to the Sun is not a practical option.
By using Venus’ gravity to steer its trajectory closer to the Sun with each pass, the probe saves vital fuel and battery power while bringing itself as close as 3.83 million miles from the surface of the Sun—a distance far closer than the planet Mercury and seven times closer than any other spacecraft has ever ventured. During its final orbits, the probe is estimated to reach speeds of nearly 450,000 mph, the equivalent of a one-second journey between New York City and Washington D.C.
Costing $1.5 billion dollars to build, launch and operate, Parker Solar Probe also aims to answer one of the most perplexing questions about the Sun: Why is the corona, the area immediately surrounding it, hotter than its surface? As NASA’s website states, “The Sun’s surface is blisteringly hot at 10,340 degrees Fahrenheit. But its atmosphere is another 300 times hotter. This has led to an enduring mystery for those who study the Sun.” As the probe swings closer and closer to its final destination, the spacecraft will be protected from temperatures up to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit by a revolutionary heat shield made from carbon-carbon composite material.
Additionally, along for the ride on the probe is a microchip that those interested can sign up to have their names stored on. Participants names will be gathered into a database, and NASA will use a precise electron beam to etch out the microscopic names of each participant in lines smaller than one one-thousandth the width of human hair. This process allows for millions of applicants to have room for the trip while keeping it as small as a penny. In a similar opportunity where NASA offered the chance to have names etched into a microchip heading for Mars, over 2.4 million people from around the world signed up for the journey.
The microchip will accompany the Parker Solar Probe on millions of miles of space travel and 24 high-speed orbits around the Sun. During its final orbit in 2025, the star’s ferocity will grow too great and breach the composite shield, destroying the probe as well as the chip and sending the disintegrated remnants sailing on the very solar winds the probe was sent to study.