A mission to touch the Sun, with the fastest spacecraft in history

New York to Tokyo in less than a minute, that’s how fast NASA’s Parker Solar Probe can go.

Designed to study the solar atmosphere, the Parker Solar Probe will go closer to the Sun’s surface than any other spacecraft before it. Things are going to heat up real quick.

An artist’s concept of the Parker Solar Probe approaching the Sun. Source: JHUAPL

The solar wind

Contrary to the surface temperature of the Sun which is ~6000 degrees Celsius, its outer atmosphere (the corona) is actually heated up to millions of degrees. And we don’t know exactly why. Such high temperatures result in a release of high energy charged particles (electrons, protons, alpha particles) from the corona, collectively called the solar wind.

The Sun’s corona can be seen during a total solar eclipse. Source: Wikipedia

The charged particles in the solar wind carry the Sun’s magnetic field outward into the solar system with high speeds. As the Sun rotates, its magnetic field twists into a spiral, affecting the release of charged particles in a similar way. The Sun’s magnetic field is thus carried outward into the solar system in the form of an Archimedean spiral.

The Sun’s magnetic field being carried outward in a spiral pattern, a result of the Sun’s rotation & its effects on the solar wind. Source: WSO Stanford

When the charged particles in the solar wind approach the Earth, they first hit the Earth’s magnetosphere, the area where the Earth’s magnetic field is dominant. The solar wind disrupts the Earth’s magnetosphere as it compresses it on the day side and extends it on the night side. The Earth’s magnetosphere is thus shaped by the solar wind.

The solar wind’s interaction with the Earth’s magnetosphere deposits high amounts of energy back to the Earth causing widespread changes to our atmosphere. One of the good effects of this interaction are beautiful Auroras.

An artist’s depiction of solar wind particles interacting with Earth’s magnetosphere. Sizes not to scale. White lines — solar wind, purple line — bow shock, blue lines — Earth’s magnetosphere. Source: Wikipedia

Solar storms and its effects on Earth

The solar wind often carries highly energized magnetic storms ejected from the Sun called solar flares, and occasionally even more energetic ones called coronal mass ejections (CMEs). The energy unleashed by these highly magnetized storms is equivalent to millions of hydrogen bombs.

1 — Comparison of the Earth to a highly energetic coronal mass ejection (CME) from the Sun, 2 — CME in action. Sources: 1 — SDO, 2 — Wikipedia

When these storms reach Earth, they can have serious effects despite our protective magnetic field. The solar storms of 1859, 1882 & 1921 all caused telegraph services to stop working, initiating fires and in some cases even delivering shocks to telegraph operators. During a1960 solar storm event, widespread radio communication disruption took place.

The effects of massive solar storms on Earth today would be much more damaging. A 1859 like solar storm can cause many problems:

  • Disrupt major electrical systems on Earth causing worldwide power outages for weeks, months or even years.
  • Physical damage to our satellites, causing them to malfunction or fail entirely.
  • Disruption of our communications infrastructure, including GPS satellites.
  • Subject astronauts to lethal doses of radiation. This is a major concern for future astronauts on Mars or Moon where there is little to no shielding from these dangerous storms.

Why we should better understand the Sun

In a society increasingly dependent on technology, it would be foolish to not understand the weather patterns of the Sun, its effects on Earth and setup our infrastructure accordingly. We wouldn’t really be an intelligent species if we ignored the most important factor that affects the Earth and Life on it.

It would also be foolish to not try and understand the curious nature of the Sun and stars like it.

  • Why is the Sun’s outer atmosphere corona so much more hotter (millions of degrees Celsius!) than its surface (~6000 degrees)?
  • What mechanisms lead to such highly energetic particles with high speeds in the solar wind?
  • What is the structure of the magnetic field like in the corona? How do these fields behave to make all this happen?

It is the quest of answering questions like these and many more that make us human.

Parker Solar Probe — The fastest spacecraft in history

Finding the answers to those questions is why we are launching the Parker Solar Probe. Scheduled to launch on 31 July 2018 on board the powerful rocket, the Delta IV Heavy, the Parker Solar Probe will be the fastest spacecraft at launch, beating the New Horizons record.

A Delta IV Heavy launch. Source: Wikipedia

The Parker Solar Probe will use multiple gravity assists from Venus to gradually decrease its orbit around the Sun. In 2024, the Parker Solar Probe will fly closest to the Sun, merely 6 million kilometers from its surface. That’s about 9 times closer to the Sun than Mercury is.

The Parker Solar Probe trajectory to achieve its closest pass to the Sun. Source: Wikipedia

At this closest approach, the Parker Solar Probe will be the fastest spacecraft ever, no matter how you measure it. At its peak, the probe will go as fast as 700,000 km/hr, which is insane to even think about. New York to Tokyo in under a minute, Earth to the Moon in half an hour. Damn.

Facing the Sun’s intense heat and radiation

Being so close to the Sun means facing its intense heat and radiation. In fact, the spacecraft will fly into the corona where the temperatures are of the order of a million degrees Celsius. Since the corona has a very low density though, most of the heat that the spacecraft faces will be from direct sunlight, which will still be hot, ~1400 degrees Celsius.

Apparent size of the Sun as seen to the Parker Solar Probe (left) vs. the Sun as seen on Earth (right). Source: Wikipedia

To protect the spacecraft from this burning heat, a special reinforced carbon-carbon composite will be used as a shield, like the ones on the nose of a Space Shuttle. The 4.5" thick heat shield will keep the spacecraft’s scientific instruments at a comfortable 20 degrees Celsius where they can operate normally. The shield will also help the spacecraft instruments withstand the crazy radiation levels which is ~500 times more than here on Earth.


With such high quality engineering helping the spacecraft operate in the Sun’s corona, a lot of the questions above are expected to be answered:

  • Determine the structure and dynamics of the magnetic fields in the corona that give rise to solar wind.
  • Trace the flow of energy that heats the corona and consequently answer why it is much more hotter than the Sun’s surface.
  • Since the spacecraft will be in the region where it can actually see the solar wind particles go from subsonic to supersonic speeds, it can determine the mechanisms by which they gain such high energies.

Some incredible science is waiting ahead for us and one that will also massively help shape our civilization in a more informed way. These are the baby steps that we need to take to slowly become a Type 1 civilization and more.

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is named after Eugene Parker who was the first to theorize that the Sun constantly sends out a flow of high energy charged particles called the solar wind. Source: NASA
The best part about NASA’s mission to touch the Sun is that it will likely generate more questions than answers. Science.