NASA is about to ‘touch’ a star for the first time — here are the hellish conditions the Parker Solar Probe must survive

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nasa parker solar probe plus sun mission delta iv 4 heavy launch united launch alliance
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe launches into space on a powerful Delta 4 Heavy rocket on August 12, 2018.
United Launch Alliance


Touching a star isn’t easy. The sun is an enormous, searing-hot orb of plasma that generates a chaos of magnetic fields and can unleash deadly blasts of particles at a moment’s notice.

But that is precisely what NASA is in the process of doing — 24 times or more — with its car-size Parker Solar Probe (PSP).

The $1.5-billion mission successfully launched into space at 3:31 a.m. ET in Sunday morning. It’s goal over the next seven years is to edge within 4 million miles of the sun, which is close enough to study the star’s mysterious atmosphere, solar wind, and other properties.

An artist’s concept of NASA’s $1.5-billion Parker Solar Probe mission passing by the sun.
NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

The probe’s first flyby is scheduled for November.

Information gathered by PSP may help space weather forecasters better predict violent solar outbursts that can overwhelm electrical grids, harm satellites, disrupt electronics, and possibly lead to trillions of dollars‘ worth of damage.

Here are some of the brutal conditions and tremendous challenges NASA’s new solar probe will have to survive now that it is in space.

The tricky process of touching a star

The orbital path that NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will have to fly to “touch” the sun.
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

The first hurdle PSP had to clear was Earth itself.

To make the trip, the probe rode atop a Delta 4 Heavy rocket, which is one of the most powerful operational launch vehicles on Earth (though not quite as powerful as SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy system).

NASA chose the rocket because it’s surprisingly hard to get to the sun, which is 93 million miles away.

Earth orbits the sun at a speed of 67,000 mph, and so does anything launched off of the planet. To fall toward the sun, PSP will have to slow down by 53,000 mph, NASA said in a video about its mission.

Three different rocket stages (one firing after the other runs out of fuel) in the Delta 4 Heavy helped considerably with boosting PSP toward that goal, but it’s not enough to repeatedly fly the probe close to the sun.

Instead, the rocket will shoot the probe on a path toward Venus, a planet it will fly past seven times over six years. The world’s strong gravitational field will help gradually absorb PSP’s “sideways motion” imparted by Earth and direct it closer and closer to the sun.

The consequence of this orbital dance is that PSP will fall toward the sun faster and faster after each pass. On its first orbit of the sun in November 2018, the probe will be some 15.4 million miles from the sun. About 21 orbits later, in December 2024, it will sneak within 4 million miles of the sun, traveling at a speed of nearly 430,000 mph relative to the star.

Achieving such a velocity would make PSP the fastest a human object in space. It’s nearly 120 miles per second — fast enough to fly from New York to Tokyo in less than a minute — and 3.3 times as fast as NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which zips past Jupiter at speeds of 130,000 mph.

How to fly through hell and back

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe must withstand blistering temperatures and incredible speeds near the sun.
David McNew/Getty Images; NASA; JHUAPL; Jenny Cheng/Business Insider

During its journey, PSP must withstand sunlight 3,000 times more powerful than occurs at Earth. Outside the spacecraft, in the outer fringes of the sun’s corona or atmosphere, temperatures may reach 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit — hot enough to liquify steel.

The probe also must contend with a “solar wind” of charged, high-energy particles that can mess with electronics.

The key to protecting the probe, as well as its sensors for measuring the sun’s magnetic fields and solar wind, is a special heat shield called the Thermal Protection System.

The carbon-foam-and-composite heat shield of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is craned into place atop the spacecraft on June 27, 2018.
NASA

Made of 4.5 inches of carbon foam sandwiched between two sheets of carbon composites, the eight-feet-wide shield will absorb and deflect solar energy that might otherwise fry the probe. A water cooling system will also help prevent the spacecraft’s solar panels from roasting and keep the spacecraft a cozy 85 deg F.

PSP’s mission is to crack two 60-year-old mysteries: why the sun has a solar wind at all, and how the corona — the star’s outer atmosphere — can heat up to millions of degrees. Both factors are key to understanding what leads to potentially devastating solar storms.

“That defies the laws of nature. It’s like water rolling uphill,” Nicola Fox, a solar physicist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, said during a NASA briefing in 2017.

“Until you actually go there and touch the sun, you can’t answer these questions,” said Fox, who’s a project scientist for the new mission.

The probe’s mission will end many years from now, after it runs out of the propellant it needs to keep its heat shield pointed at the sun. When that happens, the star’s blistering heat will burn up “90% of the spacecraft,” science writer Shannon Stirone said on Twitter— but not the heat shield itself.

“The heat shield will then orbit the sun for millions of years,” she said.

This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published on August 10, 2018.

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