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Intersection: On A Journey To The Sun, The Parker Solar Probe Is One Of A Kind

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Parker Solar Probe artist rendering. Photo: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

Imagine traveling at over 400,000 mph. At that speed you could make the trip from Washington D.C. to Philadelphia in one second. That’s how fast the Parker Solar Probe will travel to get to the sun when it launches on Aug. 11, but it won’t be a direct journey.

Dr. Alex Young, heliophysicist at NASA, says it would require too much energy because of gravity and Newton’s laws, so an alternative is required.

“We have to create another orbit. We have to leave the orbit of the Earth and create a new orbit and we’re gonna have to use Venus to help us out,” Young tells 90.7’s Brendan Byrne.

“Traditionally, a lot of missions are orbiting the Earth and this one’s not. We have to get out of the Earth’s orbit. We have to get ourselves in a unique, new orbit and we’re under the constraints that are typical constraints for a planetary mission,” Young says.

The mission is to understand more about the sun’s corona and why it’s so hot. The problem isn’t to try and withstand the heat, but to withstand the radiation. A shield and an “extremely advanced” cooling system was developed for the front of the probe.

“Those two things combined give us this crazy environment behind the shield where it’s roughly room temperature. It’s a little bit of a warm room, but basically room temperature back where those instruments are,” Young says.

There are three main goals for the probe: understand why the corona is so hot, how the solar wind has accelerated and how solar particles are energized in the corona.

“We have a collection of different types of instrumentation to allow us to do that. All of those together are giving us this broad view of both the fields, the particles, the flowing solar wind and allowing us to measure all of this up close,” Young says.

“All of this energy and material that fills our solar system and creates this crazy environment that interacts with our technology, with our planets and other objects in the solar system. All of that happens in this region where we’re diving into with Parker Solar Probe,” Young says.

This will be the first time scientists are getting an up-close look at any star. Young says “our sun is the laboratory for all the other stars in the universe” because we won’t be able to see other stars with the kind of detail we’ll be getting from the sun.

“The fact that we get to go there personally, to touch it, up close and personal and make these measurements means that we are not only opening up our eyes about our own star, but all the other stars in the universe.”

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