If you’ve been following me for awhile or know me personally, you know I have a love for all things space. While I’m no scientist by any stretch of the imagination, I love story telling. Any chance I get to combine my love for space and telling a story – I’m in.
Today, I’m here to tell you about two really cool (or in this case, really HOT) solar observers – the NASA Parker Solar Probe and the ESA-NASA Solar Orbiter.
Parker Solar Probe
Launched on August 12, 2018, the Parker Solar Probe lifted off from Cape Canaveral on a Delta IV-Heavy rocket with a mission to unlock the mysteries of the Sun’s atmosphere. It’s goals are to plunge through the Sun’s atmosphere, facing brutal heat and radiation conditions, to ultimately provide us with the first-ever samplings of a star’s atmosphere.
Using Venus’ gravity during seven flybys over nearly seven years to bring it closer and closer to the Sun, it will eventually fly well within the orbit of Mercury and more than seven times closer than any spacecraft before it. The Parker Solar Probe’s in-situ instruments and imaging will revolutionize our understanding of the Sun’s corona and expand our knowledge of the origin and evolution of solar wind.
Since it’s launch, the Parker Solar Probe has been breaking all sorts of records.
- A few months after launch, it became the closest human-made object to the Sun, passing within 26.55 million miles from the Sun’s surface.
- It became the fastest human-made object, reaching speeds of 153,454 miles per hour.
- In December 2021, it essentially touched the Sun – flying through the Sun’s upper atmosphere (corona), sampling particles and magnetic fields. With this particular mission, it made the first-ever crossing of the Alfvén critical surface (the boundary where solar material anchored to the Sun first escapes and becomes solar wind). Before this, scientists had no idea what this boundary looked like. It was observed that the Alfvén critical surface actually had spikes and valleys that wrinkle the surface.
- It 2024, it’s planned to break its own previous records, reaching a top speed of 430,000 miles per hour when it flies within 3.9 million mile miles of the Sun’s surface. At closest approach, the solar shield will face temperatures of almost 2,500 degrees F and the spacecraft’s payload will be near room temperature.
- You can see where the Parker Solar Probe is in real time here.
ESA-NASA Solar Orbiter
Launched in February 2020, the ESA Solar Orbiter’s is the most complex scientific laboratory ever sent to our Sun. The Solar Orbiter’s mission is to take images of the Sun from closer than any spacecraft before it, including a first-time look at its uncharted polar regions.
On March 7, 2022, the Solar Orbiter took this incredible mosaic of 25 individual images using its Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) instrument from a distance of approximately 47 million miles away from the Sun. This final image contains more than 83 million pixels in a 9148 x 9112 pixel grid, making it the highest resolution image of the Sun’s full disc and corona ever taken.
On March 26, 2022, the Solar Orbiter made it’s way inside the orbit of Mercury, with it’s heatshield reaching 932 degrees F. On March 30, again using its EUI instrument at the Sun’s south pole, took these incredible videos. Scientists believe the Sun’s secrets lie hidden within its solar poles. In 2025, the Solar Orbiter will use the gravitational pull of Venus to crank it’s orbit upwards and allow its instruments to investigate the solar poles from a more top-down viewpoint.
Future Mission Objectives
NASA and the ESA will continue to study our Sun, as it’s the only star we can study up close. Unlocking its mysteries will help us learn more about other stars within the universe. Scientists will learn more about the origins of solar wind (a flow of ionized gases that speed past the Earth at speeds of more than a million miles per hour) and how they shake Earth’s magnetic field.
These studies will help us learn more about space weather and how to predict it to protect the satellites we all depend on. Scientists also hope to discover what drives the Sun’s 11-year cycle of rising and subsiding magnetic activity, what heats up the upper layers of the corona, what drives the generation of solar wind and accelerates its speed, and how it all affects Earth.