Later this year, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will be making history as humanity’s first mission to the sun, as astronomers hope to learn more about the heart of our solar system and uncover the secrets of the solar winds that affect the weather near our planet. While this historic launch is still slightly less than four months away, the space agency is getting ready for the last batch of prep work ahead of the event, as confirmed by NASA in a news release earlier this week.
As explained in the news release, the Parker Solar Probe arrived on Monday at Joint Base Andrews in Prince George’s County, Maryland, a facility located near NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The spacecraft was flown to the Space Coast Regional Airport, then moved to Astrotech Space Operations, both in Titusville, Florida, where NASA engineers will conduct additional tests. The probe will then go through the final assembly processes, as it is paired with the Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle, which will be sending it to the sun on its recently confirmed July 31 launch date.
Over the past few days, the Parker Solar Probe underwent a few tests after it was removed from its protective container, as engineers double-checked whether it had “safely made the journey to Florida,” NASA wrote. The next few months before launch will see the probe be put through a battery of tests, as the all-important thermal protection system (TPS) will be installed. As explained by NASA, the TPS is the key feature that will allow the spacecraft to withstand the intense heat as it orbits the sun’s corona, which is just 3.8 million miles from the solar surface.
“There are many milestones to come for Parker Solar Probe and the amazing team of men and women who have worked so diligently to make this mission a reality,” explained Parker Solar Probe project manager Andy Driesman.
“The installation of the TPS will be our final major step before encapsulation and integration onto the launch vehicle.”
The NASA Parker Solar Probe will pass through the sun's hazy atmosphere at just 4 million miles above its surface—the closest a spacecraft has ever gotten to the fireball https://t.co/vaNG2XcMBs
— WIRED (@WIRED) March 30, 2018
The Parker Solar Probe, as explained by NASA, was named after University of Chicago professor emeritus Eugene N. Parker, in recognition of his contributions to the field of solar physics. The mission is the first in NASA history to be named after a living person, and was introduced as part of the agency’s Living With a Star initiative, which seeks to explore “aspects of the connected Sun-Earth system that directly affect life and society.” The mission is expected to last seven years, as NASA hopes the probe will make key observations on the sun’s outer atmosphere that could improve solar storm and space weather forecasting and answer “decades-old” questions about solar physics, such as the fact that the sun’s corona is much hotter than its surface, as noted by WIRED in an earlier report.