Flying Into the Sun? NASA’s Parker Solar Probe Mission

Into The Sun!


If you’ve read enough of our articles, you know I’ve got an uneasy alliance with the Sun. Sure, it provides the energy we need for all life on Earth. But, it’s a great big ongoing thermonuclear reaction, and it’s right there! As soon as we get fusion, Sun, in like, 30 years or so, I tell you, we’ll be the ones laughing.

But to be honest, we still have so many questions about the Sun. For starters, we don’t fully understand the solar wind blasting out of the Sun. This constant wind of charged particles is constantly blowing out into space, but sometimes it’s stronger, and sometimes it’s weaker.

What are the factors that contribute to the solar wind? And as you know, these charged particles are not healthy for the human body, or for our precious electronics. In fact, the Sun occasionally releases enormous blasts that can damage our satellites and electrical grids.

How can we predict the intensity so that we can be better prepared for dangerous solar storms? Especially the Carrington-class events that might take down huge portions of our modern society.

Perhaps the biggest mystery with the Sun is the temperature of its corona. The surface of the Sun is hot, like 5,500 degrees Celsius. But if you rise up into the atmosphere of the Sun, into its corona, the temperature jumps beyond a million degrees.

The list of mysteries is long. And to start understanding what’s going on, we’ll need to get much much closer to the Sun.

Good news, NASA has a new mission in the works to do just that.

The Parker Solar Probe logo. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL

The mission is called the Parker Solar Probe. Actually, last week, it was called the Solar Probe Plus, but then NASA renamed it, and that reminded me to do a video on it.

It’s pretty normal for NASA to rename their spacecraft, usually after a dead astronomer/space scientist, like Kepler, Chandra, etc. This time, though, they renamed it for a legendary solar astronomer Eugene Parker, who developed much of our modern thinking on the Sun’s solar wind. Parker just turned 90 and this is the first time NASA has named it after someone living.

Anyway, back to the spacecraft.

The mission is due to launch in early August 2018 on a Delta IV Heavy, so we’re still more than a year away at this point. When it does, it’ll carry the spacecraft on a very unusual trajectory through the inner Solar System.

The problem is that the Sun is actually a very difficult place to reach. In fact, it’s the hardest place to get to in the entire Solar System.

Remember that the Earth is traveling around the Sun at a velocity of 30 km/s. That’s almost three times the velocity it takes to get into orbit. That’s a lot of velocity.

In order to be able to get anywhere near the Sun, the probe needs to shed velocity. And in order to do this, it’s going to use gravitational slingshots with Venus. We’ve talked about gravitational slingshots in the past, and how you can use them to speed up a spacecraft, but you can actually do the reverse.

The Parker Solar Probe will fall down into Venus’ gravity well, and give orbital velocity to Venus. This will put it on a new trajectory which takes it closer to the Sun. It’ll do a total of 7 flybys in 7 years, each of which will tweak its trajectory and shed some of that orbital momentum.

Parker Solar Probe's trajectory including Venus flybys. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL
Parker Solar Probe’s trajectory including Venus flybys. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL

You know, trying to explain orbital maneuvering is tough. I highly recommend that you try out Kerbal Space Program. I’ve learned more about orbital mechanics by playing that game for a few months than I have in almost 2 decades of space journalism. Go ahead, try to get to the Sun, I challenge you.

Anyway, with each Venus flyby, the Parker Solar Probe will get closer and closer to the Sun, well within the orbit of Mercury. Far closer than any spacecraft has ever gotten to the Sun. At its closest point, it’ll only be 5.9 million kilometers from the Sun. Just for comparison, the Earth orbits at an average distance of about 150 million kilometers. That’s close.

And over the course of its entire mission, the spacecraft is expected to make a total of 24 complete orbits of the Sun, analyzing that plasma ball from every angle.

The orbit is also highly elliptical, which means that it’s going really really fast at its closest point. Almost 725,000 km/h.

In order to withstand the intense temperatures of being this close to the Sun, NASA has engineered the Parker Solar Probe to shed heat. It’s equipped with an 11.5 cm-thick shield made of carbon-composite. For that short time it spends really close to the Sun, the spacecraft will keep the shield up, blocking that heat from reaching the rest of its instruments.

And it’s going to get hot. We’re talking about more than 1,300 degrees Celsius, which is about 475 times as much energy as a spacecraft receives here on Earth. In the outer Solar System, the problem is that there just isn’t enough energy to power solar panels. But where Parker is going, there’s just too much energy.

Now we’ve talked about the engineering difficulties of getting a spacecraft this close to the Sun, let’s talk about the science.

Coronal holes are regions in the sun’s atmosphere or corona where solar plasma can stream directly into space. Often a hole will a couple rotations, inciting repeat auroras approximately every 4 weeks. Credit: NASA

The biggest question astronomers are looking to solve is, how does the corona get so hot. The surface is 5,500 Celsius. As you get farther away from the Sun, you’d expect the temperature to go down. And it certainly does once you get as far as the orbit of the Earth.

But the Sun’s corona, or its outer atmosphere, extends millions of kilometers into space. You can see it during a solar eclipse as this faint glow around the Sun. Instead of dropping, the temperature rises to more than a million degrees.

What could be causing this? There are a couple of ideas. Plasma waves pushed off the Sun could bunch up and release their heat into the corona. You could also get the crisscrossing of magnetic field lines that create mini-flares within the corona, heating it up.

The second great mystery is the solar wind, the stream of charged protons and electrons coming from the Sun. Instead of a constant blowing wind, it can go faster or slower. And when the speed changes, the contents of the wind change too.

There’s the slow wind, that goes a mere 1.1 million km/h and seems to emanate from the Sun’s equatorial regions. And then the fast wind, which seems to be coming out of coronal holes, cooler parts in the Sun’s corona, and can be going at 2.7 million km/h.

Why does the solar wind speed change? Why does its consistency change?

Parker Solar Probe's instruments. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL
Parker Solar Probe’s instruments. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL

The Parker Solar Probe is equipped with four major instruments, each of which will gather data from the Sun and its environment.

The FIELDS experiment will measure the electric and magnetic fields and waves around the Sun. We know that much of the Sun’s behavior is driven by the complex interaction between charged plasma in the Sun. In fact, many physicists agree that magnetohydrodynamics is easily one of the most complicated fields you can get into.

Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun, or ISOIS (which I suspect needs a renaming) will measure the charged particles streaming off the Sun, during regular solar activity and during dangerous solar storms. Can we get any warning before these events occur, giving astronauts more time to protect themselves?

Wide-field Imager for Solar PRobe or WISPR is its telescope and camera. It’s going to be taking close up, high resolution images of the Sun and its corona that will blow our collective minds… I hope. I mean, if it’s just a bunch of interesting data and no pretty pictures, it’s going to be hard to make cool videos showcasing the results of the mission. You hear me NASA, we want pictures and videos. And science, sure.

And then the Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons Investigation, or SWEAP, will measure type, velocity, temperature and density of particles around the Sun, to help us understand the environment around it.

One interesting side note, the spacecraft will be carrying a tiny chip on board with photos of Eugene Parker and a copy of his original 1958 paper explaining the Sun’s solar wind.

The Parker Solar Probe orbiting the Sun. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL
The Parker Solar Probe orbiting the Sun. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL

I know we’re still more than a year away from liftoff, and several years away before the science data starts pouring in. But you’ll be hearing more and more about this mission shortly, and I’m pretty excited about what it’s going to accomplish. So stay tuned, and once the science comes in, I’m sure you’ll hear plenty more about it.

Astronomy Cast Ep. 370: The Kaufmann–Bucherer–Neumann Experiments

One of the most amazing implications of Einstein’s relativity is the fact that the inertial mass of an object depends on its velocity. That sounds like a difficult thing to test, but that’s exactly what happened through a series of experiments performed by Kaufmann, Bucherer, Neumann and others.
Continue reading “Astronomy Cast Ep. 370: The Kaufmann–Bucherer–Neumann Experiments”

What is the Difference Between Speed and Velocity?

What is the Difference Between Speed and Velocity?

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When it comes to measuring motion, that is the relative passage of an object through space at a certain rate of time, several different things need to be taken into account. For example, it is not enough to know the rate of change (i.e. the speed) of the object. Scientists must also be able to assign a vector quantity; or in other words, to know the direction as well as the rate of change of that object. In the end, this is major difference between Speed and Velocity. Though both are calculated using the same units (km/h, m/s, mph, etc.), the two are different in that one is described using numerical values alone (i.e. a scalar quantity) whereas the other describes both magnitude and direction (a vector quantity).

By definition, the speed of an object is the magnitude of its velocity, or the rate of change of its position. The average speed of an object in an interval of time is the distance traveled by the object divided by the duration of the interval. Represented mathematically, it looks like this: ν=[v]=[?] = [dr/dt]•, where speed ν is defined as the magnitude of the velocity v, that is the derivative of the position r with respect to time. The fastest possible speed at which energy or information can travel, according to special relativity, is the speed of light in vacuum (a.k.a. c = 299,792,458 meters per second, which is approximately 1079 million kilometers per hour or 671,000,000 mph).

Velocity, on the other hand, is the measurement of the rate and direction of change in the position of an object. Since it is a vector physical quantity, both magnitude and direction are required to define it. The scalar absolute value (magnitude) of velocity is speed, a quantity that is measured in metres per second (m/s) when using the SI (metric) system. Mathematically, this is represented as: v = Δx/Δt, where v is the average velocity of an object, (Δx) is the displacement and (Δt) is the time interval. Add to this a vector (i.e. Δx/Δt→, ←, or what have you), and you’ve got velocity!

As an example, consider the case of a bullet being fired from a gun. If we divide the overall distance it travels within a set period of time (say, one minute), than we have successfully calculated its speed. On the other hand, if we want to determine its velocity, we must consider the direction of the bullet after it’s been fired. Whereas the average speed of the object would be rendered as simple meters per second, the velocity would be meters per second east, north, or at a specific angle.

We have written many articles about speed and velocity for Universe Today. Here’s an article about formula for velocity, and here’s an article about escape velocity.

If you’d like more info on speed and velocity, check out these articles:
Speed and Velocity
Angular and Linear Velocity

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about the space shuttle. Listen here, Episode 127: The US Space Shuttle.

Sources:
http://physics.info/velocity
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speed
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Velocity
http://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/1dkin/u1l1d.cfm
http://www.edinformatics.com/math_science/acceleration.htm

What Is Terminal Velocity?

Skydiving

The higher you are when you jump, the more it hurts when you hit the ground. That’s because the Earth’s gravity is constantly accelerating you towards its center. But there’s actually a maximum speed you reach, where the acceleration of the Earth’s gravity is balanced by the air resistance of the atmosphere. The maximum speed is called terminal velocity.

The terminal velocity speed changes depending on the weight of the object falling, its surface area and what it’s falling through. For example, a feather doesn’t weigh much and presents a very large surface area to the air as it falls. So its terminal velocity speed is much slower than a rock with the same weight. This is why an ant can fall off a tall building and land unharmed, while a similar fall would kill you. Keep in mind that this process happens in any gas or fluid. So terminal velocity defines the speed that a rock sinks when you drop it in the water.

So, let’s say you’re a skydiver jumping out of an airplane. What’s the fastest speed you’ll go? The terminal velocity of a skydiver in a free-fall position, where they’re falling with their belly towards the Earth is about 195 km/h (122 mph). But they can increase their speed tremendously by orienting their head towards the Earth – diving towards the ground. In this position, the skydiver’s velocity increases to more than 400 km/h.

The world skydiving speed record is held by Joseph Kittinger, who was able to fall at a speed of 988 km/h by orienting his body properly and jumping at high altitude, where there’s less wind resistance.

The gravity of the Earth pulls at you with a constant acceleration of 9.81 meters/second. Without any wind resistance, you’ll fall 9.81 meters/second faster every second. 9.81 meters/second the first second, 19.62 meters/ second in the next second, etc.

The opposing force of the atmosphere is called drag. And the amount of drag force increases approximately proportional to the square of the speed. So if you double your speed, you experience a squaring of the drag force. Since the drag force is going up much more quickly than the constant acceleration, you eventually reach a perfect balance between the force of gravity and the drag force of whatever you’re moving through.

Outside the Earth’s atmosphere, though, there’s no terminal velocity. You’ll just keep on accelerating until you smash into whatever’s pulling on you.

We have written many articles about the terminal velocity for Universe Today. Here’s an article featuring the definition of velocity, and here’s an article about the X-Prize Entrant completing the Drop Test

If you’d like more info on the Terminal Velocity, check out a Lecture on Terminal Velocity, and here’s a link to a NASA article entitled, The Way Things Fall.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Gravity. Listen here, Episode 102: Gravity.

Sources:
NASA
Wikipedia
GSU Hyperphysics