A few days ago the Parker Solar Probe reached the halfway mark in its mission — it completed its 12th close approach loop around the sun. Launched in August 2018 the spacecraft keeps breaking its own records for speed and proximity to our local star. This time it got to within five million miles of the sun’s surface. At first glance this seems ridiculously far off, so let’s put that feat into perspective for the wonder it truly deserves.
Our sun is a gigantic ball of self-sustaining nuclear fusion. Every second it converts unimaginable amounts of hydrogen into helium, releasing mind-boggling amounts of energy in the process. It is this energy that powers all life on Planet Earth: it provides us with heat and light, and a gravitational center to stick to, lest we’d be flung into the vast empty cold of space. It’s a pretty run-of-the-mill star, quite average in every way when compared to the other stars out there. And yet, so many mysteries remain.
It’s weird to consider that the sun has an atmosphere. We tend to think of an atmosphere as some air-like gas, something you can breathe (although for some locations a single breath is all you could ever hope to take). Compared to Earth’s thin blue line that the astronauts on board the International Space Station see, the sun’s atmosphere is huge — this is the brightly glowing corona we can spot during a total solar eclipse. While the sun’s surface is a mere (!) 6000F the corona clocks in at over a million degrees, so the further away you get from the sun’s surface the hotter it gets!
Parker is gathering data to help unravel the mystery of the crazy hot solar atmosphere. To do so it needs to dive right in there! Granted, nothing human-made can withstand such insanely high temperatures, and while Parker is equipped with the Mother of all Heatshields it also zips through the point of closest approach at blistering speeds — pun fully intended — in order to emerge unscathed on the other side. It folds its diminutive solar panels close to its body (when you’re that close to the sun you don’t need big panels), points its heatshield at the sun and goes for it. At 364,660 mph this close approach is a calculated risk, and the closer it gets with each flyby the faster it will go. There are 12 more close encounters planned, nudging a little closer and going a little faster every so often.
The spacecraft’s data has already led to a number of fascinating discoveries, such as the nature of the sun’s complicated magnetic field, or finding a dust-free zone since literally anything left there for too long gets vaporized. Parker is also examining the material flung out by the sun which then travels long distances as the so-called solar wind, the effects of which we can see on Earth as the Northern Lights for example. You can read frequent updates of Parker’s accomplishments on its website at http://parkersolarprobe.jhuapl.edu/ . The site also includes a neat countdown timer to the next mission milestone.
In order to achieve its ever-tightening orbits around the sun the spacecraft makes the occasional flyby of the planet Venus, steals a teensy bit of the planet’s momentum to fling itself onto different trajectories and grabbing some gorgeous views in passing. As pretty as Venus may look in the morning or evening sky, it is a hellish place for sure, with surface temperatures that melt lead and crushing atmospheric pressures. There’s a certain elegance in Parker’s journey to visit two such hot places repeatedly!
However, solar science is not just for super-tough spacecraft. In fact — you (yes, YOU!) — can be a solar scientist as well, working in your comfy air-conditioned home at your computer or smartphone! And so maybe you want to consider becoming a citizen scientist today! What’s stopping you?
You can be best buddies with the Parker Solar Probe by signing up for a sun-exploring citizen scientist project at https://science.nasa.gov/citizenscience . There are currently two projects listed which you can do here in central Georgia, the Solar Jet Hunter and the Sun Grazer Project. Both allow you to do actual science alongside professional researchers by looking for indicators of comets or those puzzling jets of plasma. Signing up is easy and you work at your own pace. Get the whole family involved to maximize your output! When it’s just too hot to do anything outside, chilling at home with some solar science is the way to go.
Sadly, Eugene Parker, the namesake of the Parker Solar Probe passed away three months ago, but his legacy lives on in so many ways: from the death-defying spacecraft to the Milledgeville citizen scientist lounging on the couch while scrutinizing images for clues!
Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org