MIAMI – The Parker Solar Probe, to be launched on the weekend with the mission of “touching” the Sun for the first time, will help to “corroborate or modify” current theories about our star, said Spanish scientist David Lario, who is part of the probe’s NASA design team.
Since the 1950s, the aerospace industry has wanted to send a mission to the Sun to fill the gaps in our knowledge about the central member of the Solar System.
One thing scientists have not yet done is actually “touch” the Sun, but the special instruments carried on board the probe will be able to survive the extreme temperatures in the immediate vicinity of the Sun.
“If the distance between the Sun and Earth were one meter (3.28 feet), we will get as close as 4 centimeters (1.6 inches),” Lario said.
The astrophysicist from Badalona, in northeastern Spain, will be at Cape Canaveral to monitor the Saturday launch of the mission that has “stolen” so much of his time since 2008, when NASA tasked him with building the probe at the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, where he has worked since 2000.
After completing his thesis at the University of Barcelona, in which he discussed the acceleration of energetic particles emitted by the Sun and went to work for the European Space Agency, Lario began developing his contacts in the US.
“At the start of designing the mission, we had to get to know what the environment would be that the mission will visit. My first job was to define the environment in which the probe had to survive,” the Catalonian physicist said.
In the zone near the Sun, temperatures reach 1,400 C (about 2,550 F), so the probe had to be outfitted with a heatshield to protect it and the instruments it would carry.
The probe is named for US astrophysicist Eugene Parker, who during the 1950s made the biggest discoveries about the Sun’s corona, or atmosphere, and developed the theory of the so-called “solar wind.”
Parker, now 91, last year visited the lab where Lario and his team were preparing the probe.
But scientists still don’t know why the corona gets up to over 2 million C (3.8 million F) while the actual “surface” of the Sun is only 6,000 C (10,800 F).
To find out, the Parker probe will orbit the Sun 24 times, taking advantage of Venus’s gravity to edge closer and closer to the star until it can make three quite close orbits in 2025.
The mission has practical benefits for the nations of the world, in terms of finding out about “solar storms,” which Lario said “have affected satellites around the Earth ... (and) electrical networks and instruments that use the ... magnetic field.”
He said if scientists can predict when solar material will be ejected from the Sun, satellites could be “temporarily” shut down in orbit so that their electronic components would not be damaged, Lario said.
“Knowing how our star works allows us to know how other (stars) work,” said Lario, and that also has implications in the search for extraterrestrial life.