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article imageTwo missions will take us closer to the sun than ever before

By Karen Graham     May 30, 2018 in Science
It has been an exciting year for space science and there is still a lot to look forward to as we near the halfway point of 2018. Soon, two missions will take us closer to the sun than we've ever gone before, providing insight into how our star works.
NASA will be launching the Parker Solar Probe in the first half of August 2018, and the European Space Agency (ESA) will be launching its Solar Orbiter in October 2018. And while the two missions will be using different technologies, they will be complementary.
Together, the two missions may help to resolve some decades-old questions on the inner-workings of our nearest star. And the missions will have some important implications on how we live and explore. Just think about this - Energy from the Sun powers life on Earth, but it also triggers space weather events that can pose a hazard to technology we increasingly depend upon.
We already know that space weather disrupts radio communications, affect satellites and human spaceflight, and — at its worst — can interfere with power grids. So we need to understand all we can about the fundamental solar processes driving solar events so that we can better predict when they’ll occur and how their effects may be felt on Earth.
Total Solar eclipse on August 11  1999  in France.
Total Solar eclipse on August 11, 1999, in France.
Luc Viatour /
Getting close to the sun's corona
Both the NASA and ESA mission will examine the sun's corona - an unpredictable and gaseous outer atmosphere of the star. The word, corona, comes to us from the Latin word meaning "crown," and is appropriate, too. When looking at the sun during a total solar eclipse, the sun's corona and prominences are visible to the naked eye.
“Our goal is to understand how the Sun works and how it affects the space environment to the point of predictability,” said Chris St. Cyr, Solar Orbiter project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This is really a curiosity-driven science.”
It is sort of strange, but for all we do know about planets and space travel, we actually don't know a heck of a lot about how the sun's corona works or what impact it has on solar winds and the magnetic fields at the solar poles. As NASA explains it, "We can see that corona from afar, and even measure what the solar wind looks like as it passes by Earth — but that’s like measuring a calm river a mile downstream from a waterfall and trying to understand the current’s source."
Solar Variability Affecting Earth. Incidents range from solar flares  sunspots.
Solar Variability Affecting Earth. Incidents range from solar flares, sunspots.
And it is only very recently that we have come up with the technology capable of withstanding the heat and radiation near the Sun. And NASA says this will allow the missions to get closer than anyone could imagine, even though it will still be several million miles away.
Up close and personal
Have you ever wondered how hot the sun really is? On the surface of the sun, the temperature is about 5,778 K- or 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit (5,600 degrees Celsius). Now - That is hot, but it gets even hotter as we move into the center of the star where temperatures reach about 27,000,000 degrees Fahrenheit (15,000,000 degrees Celsius).
Illustration of the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft approaching the sun.
Illustration of the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft approaching the sun.
For unknown reasons, however, temperatures rise again in the sun's atmosphere, hitting up to 3.6 million degrees F in the star's outermost corona.
Not knowing a lot about the sun's corona is why the two missions are going to be so important. "They will be taking pictures of the sun's corona at the same time, and they’ll be seeing some of the same structures — what's happening at the poles of the sun and what those same structures look like at the equator," said Eric Christian, a research scientist on the Parker Solar Probe mission.
Solar Orbiter carries a suite of 10 state-of-the-art instruments to observe the turbulent, sometimes violent, surface of the Sun and study the changes that take place in the solar wind that flows outward at high speed. Solar Orbiter will be on a tilt orbit 26 million miles from the sun and will take the first-ever direct images of the sun's poles.
Parker Probe will get much closer, about 3.8 million miles from its surface. From this distance, "the probe will be able to image solar wind, study magnetic fields and observe both plasma and energetic particles, according to NASA.
This probe will also carry with it a memory card holding 1,137,202 names, including William Shatner's — cheering it on as it travels to the sun. With all the people behind those names cheering the two missions on, let's hope something enlightening is learned. One thing is for sure, though, 2018 is an exciting year for the space community.
More about solar mission, Esa, NASA, solar winds, Corona
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