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The Parker Solar Probe, Mission to “Touch the Sun”: December 6 NASA Lecture with Dr. Alex Young

This post was authored by Stephanie Marcus, Science Reference Librarian in the Science, Technology, and Business Division.

One of NASA’s most exciting missions, the Parker Solar Probe (PSP) launched from Cape Canaveral on August 12, 2018. The mission’s findings will help researchers improve forecasts of space weather events, which have the potential to damage satellites, harm astronauts, disrupt radio communications and potentially overwhelm power grids. On October 31, PSP began the first of 24 solar encounters. On November 5, it was 15 million miles from the Sun–closer than any man-made object has ever come. The previous record of 27 million miles was set by Helios B in 1976.  The first encounter ended on November 11 and a report of all is well was received from the spacecraft on November 16.  The next perihelion (closest point to the Sun) will be April 4, 2019.

In the mid-1950s, a young physicist named Eugene Parker proposed a number of concepts about how stars, including our Sun, give off energy. He called this cascade of energy the solar wind and described an entire complex system of plasmas, magnetic fields and energetic particles that make up this phenomenon. Parker also theorized an explanation for the superheated solar corona, which is, contrary to what was expected by then-known physics laws, hotter than the surface of the sun itself. His theory suggested that regular, but small, solar explosions he called nanoflares could, in enough abundance, cause this heating. Much of his pioneering work, which has been proven by subsequent spacecraft, defined a great deal of what we know about how the Sun–Earth system interacts.  The PSP is the first NASA mission named after a living person, and at 91 years old, Dr. Parker, a University of Chicago Professor Emeritus, was at the launch.

To perform these unprecedented investigations, the spacecraft and instruments will be protected from the Sun’s heat by a 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite shield, which needs to withstand temperatures outside the spacecraft that reach nearly 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Throughout its seven-year journey, Parker Solar Probe will make six more Venus flybys for a boost, steadily moving closer to the Sun until it makes its closest approach at 3.8 million miles. At this point, the probe will be moving at roughly 430,000 miles per hour.  It already set the record for the fastest-moving man-made object on October 30 at over 153,000 mph.

Dr. Young is making his third appearance at the Library.  He spoke previously on space weather and on last year’s total solar eclipse.  He is the Associate Director for Science in the Heliophysics Science Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Date:  Thursday, December 6, 2018

Time:  11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.

Place:  Pickford Theater, 3rd floor, Madison Building

For inquiries about this program, contact Stephanie Marcus in the Science, Technology & Business Division at [email protected] or the division office at: (202) 707-1212. Individuals requiring accommodations for this event are requested to submit a request at least five business days in advance by contacting (202) 707-6362 or [email protected].

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