MIAMI – The Parker Solar Probe, the first spacecraft to travel to the sun’s corona as its upper atmosphere is called, has passed its final technical exams and is set to blast off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a mission that will help reveal the mysteries at the heart of our solar system, where it will arrive next November.
The Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle of the United Launch Alliance will take off tomorrow at 3:33 am local time from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) with the probe attached.
With a 70-percent favorable weather forecast and the problems resolved that have twice delayed the launch, NASA confirmed that all is in order to start this “historic” mission.
The Parker Solar Probe will collect information closer to the sun than any other spacecraft could do to now, and will help discover why the sun’s upper atmosphere is over 1 million degrees, while the sun’s surface is around 6,000 degrees.
This seems illogical, since “normally if we have a heat source and we distance ourselves from it, the environment gets colder. But on the sun it’s just the opposite,” Spanish astrophysicist David Lario, a scientist at Johns Hopkins University, creator of the probe, told EFE.
After years of research, the team found a way for the probe to resist a heat 500 times hotter than exists on Earth and so carry out in situ observations.
Making this possible is a heat shield called the Thermal Protection System (TPS) able to withstand temperatures of 1,400 degrees Centigrade (2,550 degrees Fahrenheit) and will maintain the instruments inside the spacecraft at just 30 degrees Centigrade.
“This mission is a tremendous challenge to engineering and science. The information it gives us will revolutionize our understanding of the sun,” Juan Felipe Ruiz, mechanical engineer of the Parker Solar Probe, told a pre-launch press conference.
The probe, small in size – 65 kilos and 3 meters long (143 pounds and 10 feet long) – will arrive at a distance of 6 million kilometers (3.7 million miles) from the sun, the equivalent of 4 centimeters (1½ inches) if Earth were 1 meter (3 feet) from the sun.
The probe comes with a cost of $1.5 billion and for the first time will bear the name of a living person, US physicist Eugene Parker, 91, who in the 1950s developed the theory of solar wind.
“The solar probe is going to a region of space that has never been explored before. It’s very exciting that we’ll finally get a look,” Parker himself told the University of Chicago newspaper. “I’m sure that there will be some surprises. There always are.”