Category: spacecraft

Ultra-Close Orbits of Saturn = Ultra-Cool Scie…

On Sept. 15, 2017, our Cassini spacecraft ended its epic exploration of Saturn with a planned dive into the planet’s atmosphere–sending back new science to the very last second. The spacecraft is gone, but the science continues!

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New research emerging from the final orbits represents a huge leap forward in our understanding of the Saturn system – especially the mysterious, never-before-explored region between the planet and its rings. Some preconceived ideas are turning out to be wrong while new questions are being raised. How did they form? What holds them in place? What are they made of?

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Six teams of researchers are publishing their work Oct. 5 in the journal Science, based on findings from Cassini’s Grand Finale. That’s when, as the spacecraft was running out of fuel, the mission team steered Cassini spectacularly close to Saturn in 22 orbits before deliberately vaporizing it in a final plunge into the atmosphere in September 2017.

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Knowing Cassini’s days were numbered, its mission team went for gold. The spacecraft flew where it was never designed to fly. For the first time, it probed Saturn’s magnetized environment, flew through icy, rocky ring particles and sniffed the atmosphere in the 1,200-mile-wide (2,000-kilometer-wide) gap between the rings and the cloud tops. Not only did the engineering push the spacecraft to its limits, the new findings illustrate how powerful and agile the instruments were.

Many more Grand Finale science results are to come, but today’s highlights include:

  • Complex organic compounds embedded in water nanograins rain down from Saturn’s rings into its upper atmosphere. Scientists saw water and silicates, but they were surprised to see also methane, ammonia, carbon monoxide, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. The composition of organics is different from that found on moon Enceladus – and also different from those on moon Titan, meaning there are at least three distinct reservoirs of organic molecules in the Saturn system.
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  • For the first time, Cassini saw up close how rings interact with the planet and observed inner-ring particles and gases falling directly into the atmosphere. Some particles take on electric charges and spiral along magnetic-field lines, falling into Saturn at higher latitudes – a phenomenon known as “ring rain.” But scientists were surprised to see that others are dragged quickly into Saturn at the equator. And it’s all falling out of the rings faster than scientists thought – as much as 10,000 kg of material per second.
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  • Scientists were surprised to see what the material looks like in the gap between the rings and Saturn’s atmosphere. They knew that the particles throughout the rings ranged from large to small. They thought material in the gap would look the same. But the sampling showed mostly tiny, nanograin- and micron-sized particles, like smoke, telling us that some yet-unknown process is grinding up particles. What could it be? Future research into the final bits of data sent by Cassini may hold the answer.
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  • Saturn and its rings are even more interconnected than scientists thought. Cassini revealed a previously unknown electric current system that connects the rings to the top of Saturn’s atmosphere.
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  • Scientists discovered a new radiation belt around Saturn, close to the planet and composed of energetic particles. They found that while the belt actually intersects with the innermost ring, the ring is so tenuous that it doesn’t block the belt from forming.
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  • Unlike every other planet with a magnetic field in our Solar System, Saturn’s magnetic field is almost completely aligned with its spin axis. Think of the planet and the magnetic field as completely separate things that are both spinning. Both have the same center point, but they each have their own axis about which they spin. But for Saturn the two axes are essentially the same – no other planet does that, and we did not think it was even possible for this to happen. This new data shows a magnetic-field tilt of less than 0.0095 degrees. (Earth’s magnetic field is tilted 11 degrees from its spin axis.) According to everything scientists know about how planetary magnetic fields are generated, Saturn should not have one. It’s a mystery physicists will be working to solve.
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  • Cassini flew above Saturn’s magnetic poles, directly sampling regions where radio emissions are generated. The findings more than doubled the number of reported crossings of radio sources from the planet, one of the few non-terrestrial locations where scientists have been able to study a mechanism believed to operate throughout the universe. How are these signals generated? That’s still a mystery researchers are looking to uncover.

For the Cassini mission, the science rolling out from Grand Finale orbits confirms that the calculated risk of diving into the gap – skimming the upper atmosphere and skirting the edge of the inner rings – was worthwhile.

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Almost everything going on in that region turned out to be a surprise, which was the importance of going there, to explore a place we’d never been before. And the expedition really paid off!

Analysis of Cassini data from the spacecraft’s instruments will be ongoing for years to come, helping to paint a clearer picture of Saturn.

To read the papers published in Science, visit: URL to papers

To learn more about the ground-breaking Cassini mission and its 13 years at Saturn, visit: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/cassini/main/index.html

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10 Things: Why Cassini Mattered

One year ago, on Sept. 15, 2017, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft ended
its epic exploration of Saturn with a planned dive into the planet’s
atmosphere–sending back new science to the last second. The spacecraft is
gone, but the science continues. Here are 10 reasons why Cassini mattered…

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1.
Game Changers

Cassini and ESA (European Space Agency)’s Huygens probe expanded our understanding of the
kinds of worlds where life might exist.

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2. A (Little) Like Home

At Saturn’s largest moon,
Titan, Cassini and Huygens showed us one of the most Earth-like worlds we’ve
ever encountered, with weather, climate and geology that provide new ways to
understand our home planet.

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3. A Time Machine (In a Sense)

Cassini gave us a portal to see the physical processes that likely
shaped the development of our solar system, as well as planetary systems around
other stars.

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4. The Long Run

The length of Cassini’s mission enabled us to observe weather and
seasonal changes over nearly half of a Saturn year, improving our understanding
of similar processes at Earth, and potentially those at planets around other
stars.

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5. Big Science in Small Places

Cassini revealed Saturn’s moons to be unique worlds with their own
stories to tell.

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6. Ringscape

Cassini showed us the complexity of Saturn’s rings and the
dramatic processes operating within them.

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7. Pure Exploration

Some of Cassini’s best discoveries were serendipitous. What
Cassini found at Saturn prompted scientists to rethink their understanding of
the solar system.

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8. The Right Tools for the Job

Cassini represented a staggering achievement of human and
technical complexity, finding innovative ways to use the spacecraft and its
instruments, and paving the way for future missions to explore our solar
system.

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9. Jewel of the Solar System

Cassini revealed the beauty of Saturn, its rings and moons,
inspiring our sense of wonder and enriching our sense of place in the cosmos.

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10. Much Still to Teach Us

The data returned by Cassini during its 13 years at Saturn will
continue to be studied for decades, and many new discoveries are undoubtedly
waiting to be revealed. To keep pace with what’s to come, we’ve created a new
home for the mission–and its spectacular images–at https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/cassini.

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NASA’s New Planet Hunter Reveals a Sky Full of…

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NASA’s newest planet-hunting satellite — the Transiting
Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS for short
— has just released its first science image using all
of its cameras to capture a huge swath of the sky! TESS is NASA’s next step in the
search for planets outside our solar system, called exoplanets.

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This spectacular image, the first released
using all four of TESS’ cameras, shows the satellite’s full field of view. It
captures parts of a dozen constellations, from Capricornus
(the Sea Goat) to Pictor
(the Painter’s Easel) — though it might be hard to find familiar constellations
among all these stars! The image even includes the Large and Small Magellanic
Clouds, our galaxy’s two largest companion galaxies.

The science community calls this image “first
light,” but don’t let that fool you — TESS has been seeing light since it
launched in April. A first light image like this is released to show off the
first science-quality image taken after a mission starts collecting science
data, highlighting a spacecraft’s capabilities.

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TESS has been busy since it launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. First TESS needed to get into position, which required a push from the Moon.

After nearly a month in space, the satellite
passed about 5,000 miles from the Moon, whose gravity gave it the boost it needed to get into a special orbit
that will keep it stable and maximize its view of the sky.

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During those first few weeks, we also got a
sneak peek of the sky through one of TESS’s four cameras. This test image
captured over 200,000 stars in just two seconds! The spacecraft was pointed
toward the constellation Centaurus when it snapped this picture. The bright
star Beta
Centauri
is visible at the lower left edge, and the edge
of the Coalsack
Nebula
is in the right upper corner.

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After settling into orbit, scientists ran a
number of checks on TESS, including testing its ability to collect a set of
stable images over a prolonged period of time. TESS not only proved its ability
to perform this task, it also got a surprise! A comet named C/2018 N1 passed through TESS’s cameras
for about 17 hours in July.

The images show a treasure
trove of cosmic curiosities
. There are some stars whose
brightness changes over time and asteroids visible as small moving white dots.
You can even see an arc of stray light from Mars, which is located outside the
image, moving across the screen.

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Now that TESS has settled into orbit and has
been thoroughly tested, it’s digging into its main mission of finding planets around other stars.
How will it spot something as tiny and faint as a planet trillions of miles
away? The trick is to look at the star!

So far, most
of the exoplanets we’ve found
were detected by looking
for tiny dips in the brightness of their host stars. These dips are caused by
the planet passing between us and its star – an event called a transit. Over
its first two years, TESS will stare at 200,000 of the nearest and brightest stars
in the sky to look for transits to identify stars with planets.

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TESS will be building on the legacy of NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which also used
transits to find exoplanets. TESS’s target stars are about 10 times closer than
Kepler’s, so they’ll tend to be brighter. Because they’re closer and brighter,
TESS’s target stars will be ideal candidates for follow-up studies with current
and future observatories.

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TESS is challenging over 200,000 of our
stellar neighbors to a staring contest! Who knows what new amazing planets
we’ll find?

The
TESS mission is led by MIT
and came together with the help of many
different partners
. You can keep up
with the latest from the TESS mission by following mission updates.

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Did somebody say space laser?

We’re set to launch ICESat-2, our most advanced laser instrument of its kind, into orbit around Earth on Sept. 15. The Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 will make critical observations of how ice sheets, glaciers and sea ice are changing over time, helping us better understand how those changes affect people where they live. Here’s 10 numbers to know about this mission:

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One Space Laser

There’s only one scientific instrument on ICESat-2, but it’s a marvel. The Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System, or ATLAS, measures height by precisely timing how long it takes individual photons of light from a laser to leave the satellite, bounce off Earth, and return to ICESat-2. Hundreds of people at our Goddard Space Flight Center worked to build this smart-car-sized instrument to exacting requirements so that scientists can measure minute changes in our planet’s ice.

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Sea ice is seen in front of Apusiaajik Glacier in Greenland. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Jim Round

Two Types of Ice

Not all ice is the same. Land ice, like the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, or glaciers dotting the Himalayas, builds up as snow falls over centuries and forms compacted layers. When it melts, it can flow into the ocean and raise sea level. Sea ice, on the other hand, forms when ocean water freezes. It can last for years, or a single winter. When sea ice disappears, there is no effect on sea level (think of a melting ice cube in your drink), but it can change climate and weather patterns far beyond the poles.

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3-Dimensional Earth

ICESat-2 will measure elevation to see how much glaciers, sea ice and ice sheets are rising or falling. Our fleet of satellites collect detailed images of our planet that show changes to features like ice sheets and forests, and with ICESat-2’s data, scientists can add the third dimension – height – to those portraits of Earth.

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Four Seasons, Four Measurements

ICESat-2’s orbit will make 1,387 unique ground tracks around Earth in 91 days – and then start the same ground pattern again at the beginning. This allows the satellite to measure the same ground tracks four times a year and scientists to see how glaciers and other frozen features change with the seasons – including over winter.

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532 Nanometer Wavelength

The ATLAS instrument will measure ice with a laser that shines at 532 nanometers – a bright green on the visible spectrum. When these laser photons return to the satellite, they pass through a series of filters that block any light that’s not exactly at this wavelength. This helps the instrument from being swamped with all the other shades of sunlight naturally reflected from Earth.

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Six Laser Beams

While the first ICESat satellite (2003-2009) measured ice with a single laser beam, ICESat-2 splits its laser light into six beams – the better to cover more ground (or ice). The arrangement of the beams into three pairs will also allow scientists to assess the slope of the surface they’re measuring.

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Seven Kilometers Per Second

ICESat-2 will zoom above the planet at 7 km per second (4.3 miles per second), completing an orbit around Earth in 90 minutes. The orbits have been set to converge at the 88-degree latitude lines around the poles, to focus the data coverage in the region where scientists expect to see the most change.

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800-Picosecond Precision

All of those height measurements come from timing the individual laser photons on their 600-mile roundtrip between the satellite and Earth’s surface – a journey that is timed to within 800 picoseconds. That’s a precision of nearly a billionth of a second. Our engineers had to custom build a stopwatch-like device, because no existing timers fit the strict requirements.

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Nine Years of Operation IceBridge

As ICESat-2 measures the poles, it adds to our record of ice heights that started with the first ICESat and continued with Operation IceBridge, an airborne mission that has been flying over the Arctic and Antarctic for nine years. The campaign, which bridges the gap between the two satellite missions, has flown since 2009, taking height measurements and documenting the changing ice.

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10,000 Pulses a Second

ICESat-2’s laser will fire 10,000 times in one second. The original ICESat fired 40 times a second. More pulses mean more height data. If ICESat-2 flew over a football field, it would take 130 measurements between end zones; its predecessor, on the other hand, would have taken one measurement in each end zone.

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And One Bonus Number: 300 Trillion

Each laser pulse ICESat-2 fires contains about 300 trillion photons! Again, the laser instrument is so precise that it can time how long it takes individual photons to return to the satellite to within one billionth of a second. 

Learn more about ICESat-2: https://www.nasa.gov/icesat-2

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10 Things to Know About Parker Solar Probe

On Aug. 12, 2018, we launched Parker Solar Probe to the Sun, where it will fly closer than any spacecraft before and uncover new secrets about our star. Here’s what you need to know.

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1. Getting to the Sun takes a lot of power

At about 1,400 pounds, Parker Solar Probe is relatively light for a spacecraft, but it launched to space aboard one of the most powerful rockets in the world, the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy. That’s because it takes a lot of energy to go to the Sun — in fact, 55 times more energy than it takes to go to Mars.

Any object launched from Earth starts out traveling at about the same speed and in the same direction as Earth — 67,000 mph sideways. To get close to the Sun, Parker Solar Probe has to shed much of that sideways speed, and a strong launch is good start.

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2. First stop: Venus!

Parker Solar Probe is headed for the Sun, but it’s flying by Venus along the way. This isn’t to see the sights — Parker will perform a gravity assist at Venus to help draw its orbit closer to the Sun. Unlike most gravity assists, Parker will actually slow down, giving some orbital energy to Venus, so that it can swing closer to the Sun.

One’s not enough, though. Parker Solar Probe will perform similar maneuvers six more times throughout its seven-year mission!

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3. Closer to the Sun than ever before

At its closest approach toward the end of its seven-year prime mission, Parker Solar Probe will swoop within 3.83 million miles of the solar surface. That may sound pretty far, but think of it this way: If you put Earth and the Sun on opposite ends of an American football field, Parker Solar Probe would get within four yards of the Sun’s end zone. The current record-holder was a spacecraft called Helios 2, which came within 27 million miles, or about the 30 yard line. Mercury orbits at about 36 million miles from the Sun.

This will place Parker well within the Sun’s corona, a dynamic part of its atmosphere that scientists think holds the keys to understanding much of the Sun’s activity.

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4. Faster than any human-made object

Parker Solar Probe will also break the record for the fastest spacecraft in history. On its final orbits, closest to the Sun, the spacecraft will reach speeds up to 430,000 mph. That’s fast enough to travel from New York to Tokyo in less than a minute!

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5. Dr. Eugene Parker, mission namesake

Parker Solar Probe is named for Dr. Eugene Parker, the first person to predict the existence of the solar wind. In 1958, Parker developed a theory showing how the Sun’s hot corona — by then known to be millions of degrees Fahrenheit — is so hot that it overcomes the Sun’s gravity. According to the theory, the material in the corona expands continuously outwards in all directions, forming a solar wind.

This is the first NASA mission to be named for a living person, and Dr. Parker watched the launch with the mission team from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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6. Unlocking the secrets of the solar wind

Even though Dr. Parker predicted the existence of the solar wind 60 years ago, there’s a lot about it we still don’t understand. We know now that the solar wind comes in two distinct streams, fast and slow. We’ve identified the source of the fast solar wind, but the slow solar wind is a bigger mystery.

Right now, our only measurements of the solar wind happen near Earth, after it has had tens of millions of miles to blur together, cool down and intermix. Parker’s measurements of the solar wind, just a few million miles from the Sun’s surface, will reveal new details that should help shed light on the processes that send it speeding out into space.

7. Studying near-light speed particles

Another question we hope to answer with Parker Solar Probe is how some particles can accelerate away from the Sun at mind-boggling speeds — more than half the speed of light, or upwards of 90,000 miles per second. These particles move so fast that they can reach Earth in under half an hour, so they can interfere with electronics on board satellites with very little warning.

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8. The mystery of the corona’s high heat

The third big question we hope to answer with this mission is something scientists call the coronal heating problem. Temperatures in the Sun’s corona, where Parker Solar Probe will fly, spike upwards of 2 million degrees Fahrenheit, while the Sun’s surface below simmers at a balmy 10,000 F. How the corona gets so much hotter than the surface remains one of the greatest unanswered questions in astrophysics.

Though scientists have been working on this problem for decades with measurements taken from afar, we hope measurements from within the corona itself will help us solve the coronal heating problem once and for all.

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9. Why won’t Parker Solar Probe melt?

The corona reaches millions of degrees Fahrenheit, so how can we send a spacecraft there without it melting?

The key lies in the distinction between heat and temperature. Temperature measures how fast particles are moving, while heat is the total amount of energy that they transfer. The corona is incredibly thin, and there are very few particles there to transfer energy — so while the particles are moving fast (high temperature), they don’t actually transfer much energy to the spacecraft (low heat).

It’s like the difference between putting your hand in a hot oven versus putting it in a pot of boiling water (don’t try this at home!). In the air of the oven, your hand doesn’t get nearly as hot as it would in the much denser water of the boiling pot.

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10. Engineered to thrive in an extreme environment

Make no mistake, the environment in the Sun’s atmosphere is extreme — hot, awash in radiation, and very far from home — but Parker Solar Probe is engineered to survive.

The spacecraft is outfitted with a cutting-edge heat shield made of a carbon composite foam sandwiched between two carbon plates. The heat shield is so good at its job that, even though the front side will receive the full brunt of the Sun’s intense light, reaching 2,500 F, the instruments behind it, in its shadow, will remain at a cozy 85 F.

Even though Parker Solar Probe’s solar panels — which provide the spacecraft’s power — are retractable, even the small bit of surface area that peeks out near the Sun is enough to make them prone to overheating. So, to keep its cool, Parker Solar Probe circulates a single gallon of water through the solar arrays. The water absorbs heat as it passes behind the arrays, then radiates that heat out into space as it flows into the spacecraft’s radiator.

For much of its journey, Parker Solar Probe will be too far from home and too close to the Sun for us to command it in real time — but don’t worry, Parker Solar Probe can think on its feet. Along the edges of the heat shield’s shadow are seven sensors. If any of these sensors detect sunlight, they alert the central computer and the spacecraft can correct its position to keep the sensors — and the rest of the instruments — safely protected behind the heat shield.

Read the web version of this week’s “Solar System: 10 Things to Know” article HERE.

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In Conversation with the Sun: Parker Solar Pro…

Our Sun powers life on Earth. It defines our days, nourishes our
crops and even fuels our electrical grids. In our pursuit of knowledge
about the universe, we’ve learned so much about the Sun, but in many ways we’re
still in conversation with it, curious about its mysteries.

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Parker Solar
Probe
will advance this conversation, flying
through the Sun’s atmosphere as close as 3.8 million miles from our star’s
surface, more than seven times closer to it than any previous spacecraft. If
space were a football field, with Earth at one end and the Sun at the other,
Parker would be at the four-yard line, just steps away from the Sun! This
journey will revolutionize our understanding of the Sun, its surface and solar
winds.

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Supporting Parker on its journey to the
Sun are our communications networks. Three networks, the Near Earth Network,
the Space
Network
and the Deep Space Network, provide our
spacecraft with their communications, delivering their data to mission
operations centers. Their services ensure that missions like Parker have
communications support from launch through the mission.

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For Parker’s launch
on Aug. 12, the Delta IV Heavy rocket that sent Parker skyward relied on the Space
Network. A team at Goddard Space Flight Center’s Networks Integration Center
monitored the launch, ensuring that we maintained tracking and communications
data between the rocket and the ground. This data is vital, allowing engineers
to make certain that Parker stays on the right path towards its orbit around
the Sun.

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The Space Network’s constellation of Tracking and Data
Relay Satellites
(TDRS) enabled constant communications coverage for
the rocket as Parker made its way out of Earth’s atmosphere. These satellites
fly in geosynchronous orbit, circling Earth in step with its rotation, relaying
data from spacecraft at lower altitudes to the ground. The network’s three collections
of TDRS over the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans provide enough coverage
for continuous communications for satellites in low-Earth orbit.

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The Near Earth Network’s Launch
Communications Segment tracked early stages of Parker’s launch, testing our brand
new ground stations’ ability to provide crucial information about the rocket’s
initial velocity (speed) and trajectory (path). When fully operational, it will
support launches from the Kennedy spaceport, including upcoming Orion
missions. The Launch Communications Segment’s three ground stations are located
at Kennedy Space Center; Ponce De Leon, Florida; and Bermuda. 

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When Parker separated from the Delta IV
Heavy, the Deep Space Network took over. Antennas up to 230 feet in diameter at
ground stations in California, Australia and Spain are supporting Parker for
its 24 orbits around the Sun and the seven Venus flybys that gradually shrink
its orbit, bringing it closer and closer to the Sun. The Deep Space Network is
delivering data to mission operations centers and will continue to do so as
long as Parker is operational.

Near the
Sun, radio interference and the heat load on the spacecraft’s antenna makes
communicating with Parker a challenge that we must plan for. Parker has three
distinct communications phases, each corresponding to a different part of its
orbit.

When Parker comes closest to the Sun, the
spacecraft will emit a beacon tone that tells engineers on the ground about its
health and status, but there will be very little opportunity to command the
spacecraft and downlink data. High data rate transmission will only occur
during a portion of Parker’s orbit, far from the Sun. The rest of the time,
Parker will be in cruise mode, taking measurements and being commanded through
a low data rate connection with Earth.

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Communications infrastructure is vital to
any mission. As Parker journeys ever closer to the center of our solar system,
each byte of downlinked data will provide new insight into our Sun. It’s a
mission that continues a conversation between us and our star that has lasted many
millions of years and will continue for many millions more.

For more information about NASA’s mission
to touch the Sun: https://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/parker-solar-probe

For more information about our satellite
communications check out: http://nasa.gov/SCaN


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Parker Solar Probe is Go for Launch

Tomorrow, Aug. 11, we’re launching a spacecraft to touch the Sun.

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The first chance to launch Parker Solar Probe is 3:33 a.m. EDT on Aug. 11 from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Launch coverage on NASA TV starts at 3 a.m. EDT at nasa.gov/live.

After launch, Parker Solar Probe begins its daring journey to the Sun’s atmosphere, or corona, going closer to the Sun than any spacecraft in history and facing brutal heat and radiation.

Though Parker Solar Probe weighs a mere 1,400 pounds — pretty light for a spacecraft — it’s launching aboard one of the world’s most powerful rockets, a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy with a third stage added.

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Even though you might think the Sun’s massive means things would just fall into it, it’s surprisingly difficult to actually go there.
Any object leaving Earth starts off traveling at about 67,000 miles per
hour, same as Earth — and most of that is in a sideways direction, so
you have to shed most of that sideways speed to make it to the Sun. All
that means that it takes 55 times more launch energy to go to the Sun
than it does to go to Mars. On top of its powerful launch vehicle,
Parker Solar Probe will use seven Venus gravity assists to shed sideways
speed.

Even though Parker Solar Probe will lose a lot of sideways speed, it’ll still be going incredibly fast as its orbit draws closer to the Sun throughout its seven-year mission. At its fastest, Parker Solar Probe will travel at 430,000 miles per hour — fast enough to get from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. in one second — setting the record for the fastest spacecraft in history.

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But the real challenge was to keep the spacecraft from frying once it got there.

We’ve always wanted to send a mission to the corona, but we literally haven’t had the technology that can protect a spacecraft and its instruments from its scorching heat. Only recent advances have enabled engineers to build a heat shield that will protect the spacecraft on this journey of extremes — a tricky feat that requires withstanding the Sun’s intense radiation on the front and staying cool at the back, so the spacecraft and instruments can work properly.

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The 4.5-inches-thick heat shield is built like a sandwich. There’s a
thin layer of carbon material like you might find in your golf clubs or
tennis rackets, carbon foam, and then another thin piece of
carbon-carbon on the back. Even while the Sun-facing side broils at
2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, the back of the shield will remain a balmy 85
degrees — just above room temperature. There are so few particles in
this region that it’s a vacuum, so blocking the Sun’s radiation goes a
long way towards keeping the spacecraft cool.

Parker Solar Probe is also our first mission to be named after a living individual: Dr. Eugene Parker, famed solar physicist who in 1958 first predicted the existence of the solar wind.

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“Solar wind” is what Dr. Parker dubbed the stream of charged particles that flows constantly from the Sun, bathing Earth and our entire solar system in the Sun’s magnetic fields. Parker Solar Probe’s flight right through the corona allows it to observe the birth of the very solar wind that Dr. Parker predicted, right as it speeds up and over the speed of sound.  

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The corona is where solar material is heated to millions of degrees and where the most extreme eruptions on the Sun occur, like solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which fling particles out to space at incredible speeds near the speed of light. These explosions can also spark space weather storms near Earth that can endanger satellites and astronauts, disrupt radio communications and, at their most severe, trigger power outages.

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Thanks to Parker Solar Probe’s landmark mission, solar scientists will be able to see the objects of their study up close and personal for the very first time.

Up until now, all of our studies of the corona have been remote — that is, taken from a distance, rather than at the mysterious region itself. Scientists have been very creative to glean as much as possible from their remote data, but there’s nothing like actually sending a probe to the corona to see what’s going on.

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And scientists aren’t the only ones along for the adventure — Parker Solar Probe holds a microchip carrying the names of more than 1.1 million people who signed up to send their name to the Sun. This summer, these names and 1,400 pounds of science equipment begin their journey to the center of our solar system.

Three months later in November 2018, Parker Solar Probe makes its first close approach to the Sun, and in December, it will send back the data. The corona is one of the last places in the solar system where no spacecraft has visited before; each observation Parker Solar Probe makes is a potential discovery.

Stay tuned — Parker Solar Probe is about to take flight.

Keep up with the latest on the mission at nasa.gov/solarprobe or follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

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Get to Know the 9 Astronauts Set to #LaunchAme…

Our Commercial Crew Program is
working with the American aerospace industry to develop and operate a
new generation of spacecraft to carry astronauts

to and from low-Earth orbit!

As we prepare to launch humans from American soil for the first time since the final space shuttle mission in 2011, get to know the astronauts who will fly with Boeing and SpaceX

as members of our commercial crew!

Bob
Behnken

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Bob Behnken

served as Chief of the NASA Astronaut Office from July 2012 to July
2015, where he was responsible for flight assignments, mission preparation, on-orbit
support of International Space Station crews and organization of astronaut
office support for future launch vehicles. Learn more about Bob

Eric Boe

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Eric
Boe first dreamed of being an astronaut at age 5 after his parents woke him up to
watch Neil Armstrong take his first steps onto the lunar surface. Learn more
about Eric
.

 Josh
Cassada 

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Josh Cassada  holds a Master of Arts Degree and a Doctorate in Physics with a
specialty in high energy particle physics from the University of Rochester, in
Rochester, New York. He was selected as a NASA astronaut in 2013, and his first
spaceflight will be as part of the Commercial Crew Program. Learn more about
Josh
.

Chris Ferguson

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Chris
Ferguson served as a Navy pilot before becoming a NASA astronaut, and was
commander aboard Atlantis for the final space shuttle flight, as part of the
same crew as Doug Hurley. He retired from NASA in 2011 and has been an integral
part of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner program. Learn more about Chris

Victor
Glover

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Victor Glover was selected as a NASA astronaut in 2013 while working as a Legislative Fellow in the United States Senate. His first spaceflight will be as part of the Commercial Crew Program. Learn more about Victor. 

Mike
Hopkins

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Mike Hopkins

was a top flight test engineer at the United States Air Force Test
Pilot School. He also studied political science at the Università degli Studi
di Parma in Parma, Italy, in 2005, and became a NASA astronaut in 2009. Learn
more about Mike
.

Doug Hurley

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In
2009, Doug Hurley was one of the record-breaking 13 people living on the space
station at the same time. In 2011, he served as the pilot on Atlantis during the
final space shuttle mission, delivering supplies and spare parts to the
International Space Station. Now, he will be one of the first people to launch
from the U.S. since that last shuttle mission. Learn more about Doug.

Nicole Mann

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Nicole
Mann is a Naval Aviator and a test pilot in the F/A-18 Hornet. She was selected
as a NASA astronaut in 2013, and her first spaceflight will be as part of the Commercial
Crew Program. Learn more about Nicole.

Suni
Williams 

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Suni Williams

has completed 7 spacewalks, totaling 50 hours and 40 minutes. She’s
also known for running. In April 2007, Suni ran the first marathon in space,
the Boston Marathon, in 4 hours and 24 minutes. Learn more about Suni.

Boeing and SpaceX are scheduled to complete their crew flight tests in mid-2019 and April 2019, respectively. Once enabled, commercial transportation to and from the
International Space Station will empower more station use, more research time and more
opportunities to understand and overcome the challenges of living in space, which is critical for us to create a sustainable
presence on the Moon and carry out missions deeper into the solar system, including Mars! 

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Gamma-ray Bursts: Black Hole Birth Announcemen…

Gamma-ray bursts are the brightest, most violent explosions in the universe, but they can be surprisingly tricky to detect. Our eyes can’t see them because they are tuned to just a limited portion of the types of light that exist, but thanks to technology, we can even see the highest-energy form of light in the cosmos — gamma rays.

So how did we discover gamma-ray bursts? 

Accidentally!

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We didn’t actually develop gamma-ray detectors to peer at the universe — we were keeping an eye on our neighbors! During the Cold War, the United States and the former Soviet Union both signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 that stated neither nation would test nuclear weapons in space. Just one week later, the US launched the first Vela satellite to ensure the treaty wasn’t being violated. What they saw instead were gamma-ray events happening out in the cosmos!

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Things Going Bump in the Cosmos

Each of these gamma-ray events, dubbed “gamma-ray bursts” or GRBs, lasted such a short time that information was very difficult to gather. For decades their origins, locations and causes remained a cosmic mystery, but in recent years we’ve been able to figure out a lot about GRBs. They come in two flavors: short-duration (less than two seconds) and long-duration (two seconds or more). Short and long bursts seem to be caused by different cosmic events, but the end result is thought to be the birth of a black hole.

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Short GRBs are created by binary neutron star mergers. Neutron stars are the superdense leftover cores of really massive stars that have gone supernova. When two of them crash together (long after they’ve gone supernova) the collision releases a spectacular amount of energy before producing a black hole. Astronomers suspect something similar may occur in a merger between a neutron star and an already-existing black hole.

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Long GRBs account for most of the bursts we see and can be created when an extremely massive star goes supernova and launches jets of material at nearly the speed of light (though not every supernova will produce a GRB). They can last just a few seconds or several minutes, though some extremely long GRBs have been known to last for hours!

A Gamma-Ray Burst a Day Sends Waves of Light Our Way!

Our Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope detects a GRB nearly every day, but there are actually many more happening — we just can’t see them! In a GRB, the gamma rays are shot out in a narrow beam. We have to be lined up just right in order to detect them, because not all bursts are beamed toward us — when we see one it’s because we’re looking right down the barrel of the gamma-ray gun. Scientists estimate that there are at least 50 times more GRBs happening each day than we detect!

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So what’s left after a GRB — just a solitary black hole? Since GRBs usually last only a matter of seconds, it’s very difficult to study them in-depth. Fortunately, each one leaves an afterglow that can last for hours or even years in extreme cases. Afterglows are created when the GRB jets run into material surrounding the star. Because that material slows the jets down, we see lower-energy light, like X-rays and radio waves, that can take a while to fade. Afterglows are so important in helping us understand more about GRBs that our Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory was specifically designed to study them!

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Last fall, we had the opportunity to learn even more from a gamma-ray burst than usual! From 130 million light-years away, Fermi witnessed a pair of neutron stars collide, creating a spectacular short GRB. What made this burst extra special was the fact that ground-based gravitational wave detectors LIGO and Virgo caught the same event, linking light and gravitational waves to the same source for the first time ever!

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For over 10 years now, Fermi has been exploring the gamma-ray universe. Thanks to Fermi, scientists are learning more about the fundamental physics of the cosmos, from dark matter to the nature of space-time and beyond. Discover more about how we’ll be celebrating Fermi’s achievements all year!

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Tools of the Trade: How Parker Solar Probe Wil…

Our Parker Solar Probe will get closer to the Sun than any spacecraft has ever gone – it will fly right through the Sun’s corona, part of the Sun’s atmosphere.

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This spacecraft is full of cutting-edge technology, from its heat shield down to its guidance and control systems. It also carries four suites of advanced instruments designed to study the Sun in a multitude of ways.  

1. Measuring particles

Two of Parker Solar Probe’s instrument suites are focused on measuring particles – electrons and ions – within the corona.

One of these particle-measuring instrument suites is SWEAP (Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons). SWEAP counts the most common particles in the solar wind – the Sun’s constant outflow of material – and measures their properties, like velocity, density and temperature. Gathering this information about solar wind particles will help scientists better understand why the solar wind reaches supersonic speeds and exactly which part of the Sun the particles come from.

One instrument in the SWEAP suite is the Solar Probe Cup. Most of the instruments on Parker Solar Probe stay safe and cool in the shadow of the heat shield, but the Solar Probe Cup is one of the few that sticks out. That’s so it can capture and measure particles streaming straight out from the Sun, and it had to go through some intense testing to get ready for this position in the Sun’s incredibly hot corona.  

Credit: Levi Hutmacher/Michigan Engineering

The ISʘIS suite (pronounced EE-sis, and including the symbol for the Sun in its acronym) also measures particles. ISʘIS is short for Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun, and this instrument suite measures particles that move faster – and therefore have more energy – than the solar wind.

These measurements will help scientists understand these particles’ lifecycles – where they came from, how they got to be traveling so fast (these particles can reach speeds more than half the speed of light!) and what path they take as they travel away from the Sun and into interplanetary space.

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2. Taking pictures – but not of the Sun’s surface.

WISPR (Wide-Field Imager for Parker Solar Probe) has the only two cameras on Parker Solar Probe – but they’re not pointed directly at the Sun. Instead, WISPR looks out the side of the spacecraft, in the direction it’s traveling, looking at the space Parker Solar Probe is about to fly through. From that vantage point, WISPR captures images of structures within the corona like coronal mass ejections, or CMEs. CMEs are clouds of solar material that occasionally explode from the Sun at millions of miles per hour. Because this solar material is magnetized, CMEs can trigger geomagnetic storms when they reach Earth – which, in turn, can cause effects like auroras and even, in extreme cases, power outages.  

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Right now, our observations of events like these come from satellites orbiting near Earth, so WISPR will give us a whole new perspective. And, scientists will be able to combine WISPR’s images with Parker Solar Probe’s direct particle measurements to get a better idea of how these structures change as they travel.

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3. Studying electric & magnetic fields

The FIELDS instrument suite is appropriately named: It’s what scientists will use to study the electric and magnetic fields in the corona.

Electric and magnetic fields are key to understanding what happens, not only on the Sun, but throughout space, because they the primary driver accelerating charged particles. In particular, a process called magnetic reconnection – when magnetic field lines explosively realign, sending particles rocketing away at incredible speeds – is thought to drive solar explosions, as well as space weather effects on Earth, like the aurora.

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FIELDS measures electric and magnetic field at high time resolution, meaning it takes lots of measurements in a short amount of time, to track these processes and shed some light on the mechanics underlying the Sun’s behavior. FIELDS’ measurements are precisely synced up with those of the SWEAP suite (one of the sets of instruments studying particles) so that scientists can match up the immediate effects that electric and magnetic fields have on the material of the solar wind.

Parker Solar Probe launches summer 2018 on its mission to study the Sun. Keep up with the latest on the mission at nasa.gov/solarprobe or follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

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