Lecture Starts at 14:23
Hot! The Parker Solar Probe: Heliophysics Near the Edge of the Sun
Nicola Fox, NASA
February 19, 2021
Heliophysics is vital to understanding Earth’s most important and life-sustaining star, and the study of key space phenomena and processes supports situational awareness to better protect astronauts, satellites, and robotic missions exploring the solar system and beyond
NASA Heliophysics research studies an extensive system stretching from the Sun to Earth to far beyond the edge of the planets. Studying this system – much of it driven by the Sun’s solar wind — provides fundamental information not only about the sun but also about other stars, and about how stars influence the habitability of planets throughout the universe. Knowledge of the Sun also is essential to protecting space technologies and astronauts, and to protecting ground based technologies as well. Extreme space weather can interfere with communications, satellites and power grids.
Mapping out he Sun’s interconnected heliophysical system requires holistic study of the Sun and its influence on space, Earth and other planets. NASA has deployed a fleet of spacecraft strategically throughout the heliosphere to study the Sun and its influences on the solar system — from the Parker Solar Probe at the Sun observing the very start of the solar wind, to satellites around Earth, to the farthest human-made object, Voyager, which is sending back observations on interstellar space. Each mission is positioned at a specific vantage point so that, in sum, scientists can construct a complete picture of the flow of energy and particles throughout the solar system.
The Parker Solar Probe is the first mission to venture to the Sun and into the Sun’s corona. It is the culmination of a 60-year effort to build a spacecraft and instruments capable of exploring the searing temperatures and radiation of the corona, and investigate the processes that drive the solar wind. In fact, it was first deemed a science priority in 1958 when Eugene Parker predicted the existence of the solar wind. But it was not a practical possibility until recently due to the extreme radiation environment that close to the Sun. Fortunately, new materials and methods developed over the past 20 years have allowed NASA to design and construct a platform – the Parker Solar Probe – that can maintain its integrity and provide the environmental protections necessary for its instrumentation to function properly as it approaches the Sun.
Launched by NASA in 2018, the Parker Solar Probe is now orbiting the Sun, studying the structure and dynamics of its coronal plasma and magnetic fields, the energy flow that heats the solar corona and impels the solar wind, and the mechanisms that accelerate energetic particles. At its closest approach it will come within 4,300,000 miles of the Sun’s center and will be traveling at 430,000 mph. It is the fastest human-made object in history, the one to come closest to the Sun itself, and the first one to fly into the solar corona.
While in the vicinity of the Sun it will have to endure extreme temperatures and radiation fluxes The spacecraft’s systems are protected by a solar shield of reinforced carbon–carbon composite that can withstand temperatures of 1,370°C. It is powered by solar panels that extend beyond the periphery of the shield. It uses four light sensors, reaction wheels and associated computational resources to keep the heat shield pointed to the Sun and properly oriented to maintain the proper operating temperature for its scientific instruments. Orientation is done autonomously as is much of the probes other functions. It is the most autonomous platform ever sent into space.
Although it is still early days for the spacecraft, data from the Parker Solar Probe already has revealed previously unobserved processes in the near-solar region. This lecture will discuss the Probe’s design, instrument payload and trajectory, and it will explore highlights of the new scientific findings from the mission.
Nicola Fox is the Heliophysics Division Director in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. Previously, she served as Project Scientist for the Parker Solar Probe and as Chief Scientist for Heliophysics at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Before that Nicola was Deputy Project Scientist for the Van Allen Probes and Operations Scientist for the International Solar Terrestrial Physics Program.
Nicola is an author on numerous scientific publication articles and she frequently speaks worldwide on science.
Among other honors and awards Nicola is the recipient of numerous NASA awards for outstanding performance.
She earned her BS in Physics and her PhD in Space Plasma Physics at Imperial College, London. She also earned her MS in Telematics at the University of Surrey, United Kingdom.