On May 31, 2017, NASA announced that it has renamed the Solar Probe Plus spacecraft as the Parker Solar Probe, in honor of astrophysicist Eugene Parker. The announcement was made at a ceremony at the University of Chicago, where Parker serves as the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus, Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics.
The Parker Solar Probe (PSP) is an exciting mission of exploration and discovery, a journey to the Sun itself. By flying into the Sun’s outer atmosphere—called the corona—the Parker Solar Probe will gather data on the processes that heat the corona and accelerate the solar wind—solving two fundamental mysteries that have been top-priority science goals for many decades. This mission will transform our understanding of the Sun and Sun-like stars, enabling further exploration through our own solar system.
The Parker Solar Probe will study the streams of charged particles the Sun hurls into space from a vantage point where the processes that heat the corona and produce solar wind actually occur. At closest approach, the spacecraft will zip past the Sun at 125 miles per second, protected by a carbon-composite heat shield that must withstand up to 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit and survive blasts of radiation and energized dust at levels not experienced by any previous spacecraft.
The Parker Solar Probe’s science objectives fall under two main themes:
- Coronal heating and solar wind acceleration
- Production, evolution and transport of solar energetic particles
To address these objectives, the Parker Solar Probe will travel closer to the Sun than any other spacecraft and explore the innermost region of our solar system. With the data it transmits back to Earth, solar and space physicists will answer questions that cannot be answered by any other means and will attain a deep understanding of phenomena and processes in this fascinating and critical region. And as with any great voyage into uncharted realms, the journey of the Parker Solar Probe to the Sun holds the promise of many more unanticipated discoveries—new mysteries to challenge humankind’s ever expanding knowledge of our home in the universe.
The Parker Solar Probe will explore one of the last regions of the inner solar system to be visited by a spacecraft, the Sun’s outer atmosphere where it extends into space. From as close as 3.7 million miles above the Sun’s surface, the Parker Solar Probe will repeatedly sample the near-Sun environment, revolutionizing our knowledge and understanding of coronal heating and of the origin and evolution of the solar wind. The data will also help us answer critical heliophysics questions that have puzzled scientists for decades. By making direct, in-situ measurements of the region where some of the most hazardous solar energetic particles are energized, the Parker Solar Probe will make a fundamental contribution to our ability to characterize and forecast the radiation environment in which future space explorers will work and live.
The Parker Solar Probe has four scientific priorities:
- Determine the structure and dynamics of the magnetic fields at the sources of both fast and slow solar wind
- Trace the flow of energy that heats the corona and accelerates the solar wind
- Determine what mechanisms accelerate and transport energetic particles
- Explore dusty plasma phenomena near the Sun and its influence on the solar wind and energetic particle formation
The Parker Solar Probe’s science objectives will be addressed through a combination of in situ and remote-sensing observations made from an orbit slightly above the ecliptic plane—the “line” on which most planets orbit the Sun—and at progressively closer distances to the Sun. The spacecraft will reach its closest distance—just 8.5 times the radius of the Sun—roughly 6½ years after launch.
LASP will provide:
- The Digital Fields Board (DFB) for the PSP Fields Experiment
- PSP Fields Experiment co-investigators, Robert Ergun and David Malaspina
The PSP Fields Experiment will make direct measurements of electric and magnetic fields, radio emissions, and shock waves that course through the Sun’s atmospheric plasma. The experiment also serves as a giant dust detector, registering voltage signatures when specks of space dust hit anywhere on the exposed surface area of the spacecraft.
The DFB will process electric field data and search coil magnetometer data up to 64 kHz. The board will provide analog and digital filtering of these signals, digitize these electric and magnetic field signals, perform spectral and cross spectral calculations, and act as a dust detector by counting voltage spikes.
Launch date: August 12, 2018
Launch location: Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida
Launch vehicle: Delta IV Heavy
Mission target: The Sun’s corona
Other organizations involved:
- Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory
- University of California, Berkeley,
- University of Minnesota
- NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
- Paris Observatory