The Sun is Actually One of the Most Difficult Places to Reach in the Solar System. Here’s how the Parker Solar Probe Will Do It

When it comes to exploring our Solar System, there are few missions more ambitious than those that seek to study the Sun. While NASA and other space agencies have been observing the Sun for decades, the majority of these missions were conducted in orbit around Earth. To date, the closest any probes have gotten to the Sun were the Helios 1 and 2 probes, which studied the Sun during the 1970s from inside Mercury’s orbit at perihelion.

NASA intends to change all that with the Parker Solar Probe, the space probe that recently launched from Cape Canaveral, which will revolutionize our understanding of the Sun by entering it’s atmosphere (aka. the corona). Over the next seven years, the probe will use Venus’ gravity to conduct a series of slingshots that will gradually bring it closer the Sun than any mission in the history of spaceflight!

The spacecraft lifted off at 3:31 a.m. EDT on Sunday August 12th, from Space Launch Complex-37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket. At 5:33 a.m., the mission operations manager reported that the spacecraft was healthy and operating normally. Over the course of the next week, it will begin deploying its instruments in preparation for its science mission.

Once inside the Sun’s corona, the Parker Solar Probe will employ an advanced suite of instruments to revolutionize our understanding of the Sun’s atmosphere and the origin and evolution of solar wind. These and other findings will allow researchers and astronomers to improve their ability to forecast space weather events (such as solar flares), which can cause harm to astronauts and orbiting missions, disrupt radio communications and damage power grids.

As Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a recent NASA press release:

“This mission truly marks humanity’s first visit to a star that will have implications not just here on Earth, but how we better understand our universe. We’ve accomplished something that decades ago, lived solely in the realm of science fiction.”

The Parker Probes mission certainly comes with its share of challenges. In addition to the incredible heat it will have to endure, there is also the challenge of simply getting there. This is due to Earth’s orbital velocity, which travels around the Sun at a speed of 30 km/s (18.64 mps) – or about 108,000 km/h (67,000 mph). Cancelling out this velocity and traveling towards the Sun would take 55 times as much energy as it would for a craft to travel to Mars.

To address this challenge, the Parker Probe has been launched by a very powerful rocket – the ULA Delta IV, which is capable of generating 9,700 kN of thrust. In addition, it will be relying on a series of gravity assists (aka. gravitational slingshots) with Venus. These will consist of the probe conducting flybys of the Sun, then circling around Venus to get a boost in speed from the force of the planet’s gravity, and then slingshoting around the Sun again.

The launch of the Parker Solar Probe atop a ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on August 12th, 2018. Credit: Glenn Davis

Over the course of its seven-year mission, the probe will conduct seven gravity-assists with Venus and will make 24 passes of the Sun, gradually tightening its orbit in the process. Eventually, it will reach a distance of roughly 6 million km (3.8 million mi) from the Sun and fly through it’s atmosphere (aka. corona), effectively getting more than seven times closer than any spacecraft in history. In addition, the probe will be traveling at speeds of roughly 692,000 km/h (430,000 mph), which will set the record for the fastest-moving spacecraft in history.

During the first week of its journey, the spacecraft will deploy its high-gain antenna and magnetometer boom, which houses the three instruments it will use to study the Sun’s magnetic field. It will also perform the first of a two-part deployment of its five electric field antennas (aka. the FIELDS instrument suite), which will measure the properties of solar wind and help make a three-dimensional picture of the Sun’s electric fields.

Other instruments aboard the spacecraft include the Wide-Field Imager for Parker Solar Probe (WISPR), the spacecraft’s only imaging instrument. This instrument will take pictures of the large-scale structure of the corona and solar wind before the spacecraft flies through it, capturing such phenomena as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), jets, and other ejecta from the Sun.

There’s also the Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons (SWEAP) investigation instrument, which consists of two other instruments – the Solar Probe Cup (SPC) and the Solar Probe Analyzers (SPAN). These will count the most abundant particles in the solar wind – electrons, protons and helium ions – and measure their velocity, density, temperature, and other properties to improve our understanding of solar wind and coronal plasma.

Then there’s the Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun (ISOIS), which relies on the EPI-Lo and EPI-Hi instruments – Energetic Particle Instruments (EPI). Using these two instruments, ISOIS will measure electrons, protons and ions across a wide range of energies to gain a better understanding of where these particles come from, how they became accelerated, and how they move throughout the Solar System.

In addition to being the first spacecraft to explore the Sun’s corona, the Parker Solar Probe is the first spacecraft named after a living scientist – Eugene Parker, the physicist who first theorized the existence of the solar wind in 1958. As Nicola Fox, the probe’s project scientist at the JHUAPL, indicated:

“Exploring the Sun’s corona with a spacecraft has been one of the hardest challenges for space exploration. We’re finally going to be able to answer questions about the corona and solar wind raised by Gene Parker in 1958 – using a spacecraft that bears his name – and I can’t wait to find out what discoveries we make. The science will be remarkable.”

Dr. Parker was on hand to witness the early morning launch of the spacecraft. In addition to its advanced suite of scientific instruments, the probe also carries a plaque dedicating the mission to Parker. This plaque, which was attached in May, includes a quote from the renowned physicist – “Let’s see what lies ahead” – and a memory card containing more than 1.1 million names submitted by the public to travel with the spacecraft to the Sun.

Instrument testing will begin in early September and last approximately four weeks, after which the Parker Solar Probe can begin science operations. On September 28th, it will conduct its first flyby of Venus and perform its first gravity assist with the planet by early October. This will cause the spacecraft to assume a 180-day orbit of the Sun, which will bring it to a distance of about 24 million km (15 million mi).

In the end, the Parker Solar Probe will attempt to answer several long-standing mysteries about the Sun. For instance, why is the Sun’s corona 300 times hotter than the Sun’s surface, what drives the supersonic solar wind that permeates the entire Solar System, and what accelerates solar energetic particles – which can reach speeds of up to half the speed of light – away from the Sun?

Close up photo of the ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket’s engines as it launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Glenn Davis

For sixty years, scientists have pondered these questions, but were unable to answer them since no spacecraft was capable of penetrating the Sun’s corona. Thanks to advances in thermal engineering, the Parker Solar Probe is the first spacecraft that will be able to “touch” the face of the Sun and reveal its secrets. By December, the craft will transmit its first science observations back to Earth.

As Andy Driesman, the project manager of the Parker Probe mission at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL), expressed:

“Today’s launch was the culmination of six decades of scientific study and millions of hours of effort. Now, Parker Solar Probe is operating normally and on its way to begin a seven-year mission of extreme science.”

Understanding the dynamics of the Sun is intrinsic to understanding the history of the Solar System and the emergence of life itself. But until now, no mission has been able to get close enough to the Sun to address its greatest mysteries. By the time the Parker Solar Probe’s mission is complete, scientists expect to have learned a great deal about the phenomena that can give rise to life, and disrupt it!

Further Reading: NASA, Youtube

Watch the Sun to Know When We’re Going to Have Killer Auroras

To the naked eye, the Sun puts out energy in a continual, steady state, unchanged through human history. (Don’t look at the sun with your naked eye!) But telescopes tuned to different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum reveal the Sun’s true nature: A shifting, dynamic ball of plasma with a turbulent life. And that dynamic, magnetic turbulence creates space weather.

Space weather is mostly invisible to us, but the part we can see is one of nature’s most stunning displays, the auroras. The aurora’s are triggered when energetic material from the Sun slams into the Earth’s magnetic field. The result is the shimmering, shifting bands of color seen at northern and southern latitudes, also known as the northern and southern lights.

This image of the northern lights over Canada was taken by a crew member on board the ISS in Sept. 2017. Image: NASA

There are two things that can cause auroras, but both start with the Sun. The first involves solar flares. Highly-active regions on the Sun’s surface produce more solar flares, which are sudden, localized increase in the Sun’s brightness. Often, but not always, a solar flare is coupled with a coronal mass ejection (CME).

A coronal mass ejection is a discharge of matter and electromagnetic radiation into space. This magnetized plasma is mostly protons and electrons. The CME ejection often just disperses into space, but not always. If it’s aimed in the direction of the Earth, chances are we get increased auroral activity.

The second cause of auroras are coronal holes on the Sun’s surface. A coronal hole is a region on the surface of the Sun that is cooler and less dense than surrounding areas. Coronal holes are the source of fast-moving streams of material from the Sun.

Whether it’s from an active region on the Sun full of solar flares, or whether it’s from a coronal hole, the result is the same. When the discharge from the Sun strikes the charged particles in our own magnetosphere with enough force, both can be forced into our upper atmosphere. As they reach the atmosphere, they give up their energy. This causes constituents in our atmosphere to emit light. Anyone who has witnessed an aurora knows just how striking that light can be. The shifting and shimmering patterns of light are mesmerizing.

The auroras occur in a region called the auroral oval, which is biased towards the night side of the Earth. This oval is expanded by stronger solar emissions. So when we watch the surface of the Sun for increased activity, we can often predict brighter auroras which will be more visible in southern latitudes, due to the expansion of the auroral oval.

This photo is of the aurora australis over New Zealand. Image: Paul Stewart, Public Domain, CC 1.0 Universal.

Something happening on the surface of the Sun in the last couple days could signal increased auroras on Earth, tonight and tomorrow (March 28th, 29th). A feature called a trans-equatorial coronal hole is facing Earth, which could mean that a strong solar wind is about to hit us. If it does, look north or south at night, depending on where your live, to see the auroras.

Of course, auroras are only one aspect of space weather. They’re like rainbows, because they’re very pretty, and they’re harmless. But space weather can be much more powerful, and can produce much greater effects than mere auroras. That’s why there’s a growing effort to be able to predict space weather by watching the Sun.

A powerful enough solar storm can produce a CME strong enough to damage things like power systems, navigation systems, communications systems, and satellites. The Carrington Event in 1859 was one such event. It produced one of the largest solar storms on record.

That storm occurred on September 1st and 2nd, 1859. It was preceded by an increase in sun spots, and the flare that accompanied the CME was observed by astronomers. The auroras caused by this storm were seen as far south as the Caribbean.

Sunspots are dark areas on the surface of the Sun that are cooler than the surrounding areas. They form where magnetic fields are particularly strong. The highly active magnetic fields near sunspots often cause solar flares. Image: NASA/SDO/AIA/HMI/Goddard Space Flight Center

The same storm today, in our modern technological world, would wreak havoc. In 2012, we almost found out exactly how damaging a storm of that magnitude could be. A pair of CMEs as powerful as the Carrington Event came barreling towards Earth, but narrowly missed us.

We’ve learned a lot about the Sun and solar storms since 1859. We now know that the Sun’s activity is cyclical. Every 11 years, the Sun goes through its cycle, from solar maximum to solar minimum. The maximum and minimum correspond to periods of maximum sunspot activity and minimum sunspot activity. The 11 year cycle goes from minimum to minimum. When the Sun’s activity is at its minimum in the cycle, most CMEs come from coronal holes.

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), and the combined ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) are space observatories tasked with studying the Sun. The SDO focuses on the Sun and its magnetic field, and how changes influence life on Earth and our technological systems. SOHO studies the structure and behavior of the solar interior, and also how the solar wind is produced.

Several different websites allow anyone to check in on the behavior of the Sun, and to see what space weather might be coming our way. The NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center has an array of data and visualizations to help understand what’s going on with the Sun. Scroll down to the Aurora forecast to watch a visualization of expected auroral activity.

NASA’s Space Weather site contains all kinds of news about NASA missions and discoveries around space weather. SpaceWeatherLive.com is a volunteer run site that provides real-time info on space weather. You can even sign up to receive alerts for upcoming auroras and other solar activity.

The Sun Burps Out a Gigantic Rolling Wave

Just in time for May Day, the Sun blasted out a coronal mass ejection (CME) from just around the limb earlier today, May 1, 2013. In a gigantic rolling wave, this CME shot out about a billion tons of particles into space, traveling at over a million miles per hour. This CME is not headed toward Earth. The video, taken in extreme ultraviolet light by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), covers about two and a half hours of elapsed time.

Camilla, the rubber chicken mascot for the SDO, said via YouTube that getting this side view shows the power and force behind these solar flares and coronal mass ejections.

This image shows three views of the CME from three different instruments. Left is the SDO image, taken at 02:40 UT. Center is from the SOHO spacecraft, looking through their coronograph instrument. The “mushroom” cloud of plasma leaving the Sun is visible. On the right is the LASCO C2 (red) and C3 (blue) instruments on SOHO, which use a disk to block out the Sun. Visible are the solid occulter disk, used to create a false eclipse; the “pylon”, which is an arm that holds the occulter disk in place; a representation of the Sun in the form of a white disk drawn on the occulter during our image processing and then you can see background stars and the cloud of plasma leaving the Sun.

A coronal mass ejection from the Sun on May 1, 2013. Credit: NASA/SDO
A coronal mass ejection from the Sun on May 1, 2013. Credit: NASA/SDO

Sun Unleashes Powerful X-Class Solar Flare

The Sun has been quiet recently but early today (04:13 UTC on March 5, 2012) it unleashed a powerful X1-class solar flare and coronal mass ejection. The latest estimates indicate the CME will probably miss Earth, but hit Mercury and Venus. Even so, the science team from the Solar Dynamics Observatory says that high-latitude skywatchers should still be alert for auroras in the nights ahead. There was also an M2-class eruption from the same big and active sunspot, Active Region 1429, on March 4th which produced another, wider CME that might yet intersect Earth. The cloud is expected to deliver a glancing blow to our planet’s magnetic field on March 6th at 04:30 UT (+/- 7 hrs).

Check the latest forecast of the CME’s arrival from the NASA Goddard Space Weather Lab, which includes a great animation.

So, what’s the difference in the classes of solar flares and how could they affect us on Earth?
Continue reading “Sun Unleashes Powerful X-Class Solar Flare”

Aurora Alert! Sun Sends CME in Earth’s Direction

As seen here by the Solar Dynamics Observatory, a long duration M3-class flare began erupting on the Sun from sunspot region 1401 at 13:42 UTC (8:42 AM ET) today, Thursday, January 19, 2012, sending a coronal mass ejection (CME) directly towards Earth. Scientists predict the CME will arrive at around 16:00 UTC on January 21, 2012 GMT. Spaceweather.com says strong geomagnetic storms are possible and high-latitude (and possibly middle-latitude) skywatchers can be on the lookout for increased aurora.

Continue reading “Aurora Alert! Sun Sends CME in Earth’s Direction”

Sun Erupts with Enormous X2 Solar Flare

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, [and the Stardust flyby of Comet Tempel 1] the Sun erupted with a massive X-Class flare, the most powerful of all solar events on February 14 at 8:56 p.m. EST . This was the first X-Class flare in Solar Cycle 24 and the most powerful X-ray flare in more than four years.

The video above shows the flare as imaged by the AIA instrument at 304 Angstroms on NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. More graphic videos below show the flare in the extreme ultraviolet wavelength of 193 Angstroms and as a composite with SOHO’s coronagraph.

Spaceweather Update: A CME hit Earth’s magnetic field at approximately 0100 UT on Feb. 18th (8:00 pm EST on Feb. 17th). Send me or comment your aurora photos

The eruption registered X2 on the Richter scale of solar flares and originated from Active Region 1138 in the sun’s southern hemisphere. The flare directly follows several M-class and C-class flares over the past few days which were less powerful. The explosion also let loose a coronal mass ejection (CME) headed for Earth’s orbit. It was speeding at about 900 Km/second.
CME’s can disrupt communications systems and the electrical power grid and cause long lasting radiation storms.

According to a new SDO update, the particle cloud from this solar storm is weaker than first expected and may produce some beautiful aurora in the high northern and southern latitudes on Feb. 17 (tonight).

According to spaceweather.com, skywatchers in the high latitudes should be alert for auroras after nightfall Feb. 17 from this moderately strong geomagnetic storm.

Send me your aurora reports and photos to post here

Sources: SDO website, spaceweather.com

NASA SDO – Big, Bright Flare February 15, 2011

Video Caption: Active region 1158 let loose with an X2.2 flare at 0153 UT or 8:50 pm ET on February 15, 2011, the largest flare since Dec. 2006 and the biggest flare so far in Solar Cycle 24. Active Region 1158 is in the southern hemisphere, which has been lagging the north in activity but now leads in big flares! The movie shows a close-up of the flaring region taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory in the extreme ultraviolet wavelength of 193 Angstroms. Much of the vertical line in the image and the staggered lines making an “X” are caused by the bright flash overwhelming our imager. A coronal mass ejection was also associated with the flare. The movie shows activity over about two days (Feb. 13-15, 2011). Since the active region was facing Earth, there is a good chance that Earth will receive some effects from these events, with some possibility of mid-latitude aurora Feb. 16 – 18. Credit: NASA SDO

X2 flare Video combo from SDO and SOHO

Video caption: The X2 flare of Feb. 15, 2011 seen by SDO (in extreme ultraviolet light) enlarged and superimposed on SOHO’s coronagraph that shows the faint edge of a “halo” coronal mass ejection as it races away from the Sun. The video covers about 11 hours

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This image taken by SDO's AIA instrument at 171 Angstrom shows the current conditions of the quiet corona and upper transition region of the Sun. Credit: NASA/SDO/AIA

Venus and Mercury Blasted by Recent Solar Storms

Update: Well, it turns out that while it looks like Venus and Mercury are getting pummeled by Coronal Mass Ejections, the geometry might not work out, at least not for every day that is included in the video above. UT reader Steven Janowiecki brought it to my attention that just because Mercury and Venus look close to the Sun doesn’t mean they’re actually in the line of fire, as they could be well behind or in front of the solar storm. I checked with STEREO project scientist Dr. Joseph Gurman, who took a look at the data. He put together a plot for August 14, (see below) and said, “It shows that Mercury and Venus are well to the East (left) of the Sun-earth line. The large CME on the 14th originated from an active region near the west limb of the Sun, and since most CME’s are about 60 degrees of heliolongitude in width on average, it’s unlikely that that event actually passed by Mercury or Venus.” There was one large event, however, on August 7, that appeared likely to be headed in the direction of Mercury and Venus.

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So, as it happens sometimes in astronomy, things are not always as they appear, and this exemplifies the challenges of estimating distance in astronomy.

The STEREO website has a very nifty tool where you can see the location of the spacecraft on any date, as well as where the planets are in their orbits. And there is another tool where you can see and download images from a particular day and time and even put together movies of a specific time period showing STEREO data.

Here’s the rest of the article as it ran originally:

Take a look at these Coronal Mass Ejections (CME) from the first part of August 2010, as seen by the two STEREO spacecraft. Here on Earth, we’ve had some aurorae, a result of the recent solar activity. But this STEREO imagery shows Venus and Mercury were blasted by these CMEs.

STEREO consists of two spacecraft – one ahead of Earth in its orbit, the other trailing behind. With this new pair of viewpoints, scientists are able to see the structure and evolution of solar storms as they blast from the Sun and move out through space.

These movies were taken by SECCHI, a suite of remote sensing instruments on both spacecraft consisting of two white light coronagraphs that make up the Sun Centered Imaging Package (SCIP), as well as a Heliospheric Imager (HI).

SECCHI can follow three-dimensional Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) from the Sun’s surface, through the corona and interplanetary medium, to impact at Earth. With these instruments, scientists are getting breakthroughs in understanding the origin and consequences of CMEs, in determining their three-dimensional structure, and more, and perhaps be able to predict space weather. Combining STEREO with the new Solar Dynamics Observatory, we’ll be learning more and more about the Sun in the next few years.

As an example of SDO’s capabilities, here’s an SDO image from earlier today showing the Sun’s limb.

View of the Sun from August 18, 2010 from the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Credit: NASA/SDO

Credit: NASA STEREO/NRL