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QMUL astronomers look forward to launch of trail-blazing solar probe

Nasa is about to launch a new spacecraft on a daring mission that will take it closer to the Sun than any human-made object has ever been. Scientists from QMUL’s School of Physics and Astronomy are members of the team that will analyse the data collected.

9 August 2018

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Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

The Parker Solar Probe is set to launch on or about 11 August from Cape Canaveral in Florida. It will spend 7 years observing the Sun, in particular the hot outer region known as the corona, and the stream of high-energy particles known as the solar wind. To do this it will get about 7 times closer to the Sun than any spacecraft has gone before — at its closest approach it will be within 9 solar radii of the Sun, about 4% of the distance between the Sun and Earth.

QMUL's Prof. David Burgess and Dr Chris Chen are members of the FIELDS team — FIELDS is a suite of electric and magnetic field instruments to measure the properties of the solar corona and the solar wind. Chris Chen was involved in the design of the FIELDS instrument suite from a science perspective, but his and David Burgess’s main role will be in the analysis of the data sent back by the spacecraft.

The mission aims to answer some questions that are key to our understanding of the Sun: how is the solar corona heated to millions of degrees (hundreds of times hotter than the solar surface); how is the solar wind accelerated to such high speeds (more than a million miles per hour); how does the Sun produce the highly energetic particles that fill the solar system; how do processes originating at the Sun affect the space weather in the vicinity of the Earth?

The Parker Solar Probe carries four instrument suites: FIELDS (measuring electric & magnetic fields, plasma waves and radio emission); SWEAP (measuring solar wind properties such as speed, density and temperature); ISOIS (measuring solar energetic particles); and WISPR (taking white light images of the solar corona and solar wind). On its Sun-facing side is a 12-cm-thick heat shield that will protect the spacecraft and instruments from the solar radiation (which will be 500 times greater than at the Earth) and keep them close to room temperature.

The spacecraft is named after Eugene Parker, who made numerous contributions to space plasma physics, notably predicting the existence of the solar wind in a seminal paper in 1958. The mission is managed by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and implemented by John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, together with an international team of scientists and engineers from more than 40 institutions. Further information can be found the mission website.



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