Category: sun

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The Kepler space telescope has shown us our ga…

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The Kepler space telescope

has taught us there are so many planets out there, they outnumber even
the stars. Here is a sample of these wondrous, weird and unexpected worlds (and
other spectacular objects in space) that Kepler has spotted with its “eye” opened to the heavens.

Kepler has found that double sunsets
really do exist.

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Yes, Star Wars fans, the double sunset on Tatooine could really exist.
Kepler discovered the first known planet around a double-star system, though

Kepler-16b is probably a gas giant without a solid surface.

Kepler has gotten us closer to finding
planets like Earth.

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Nope. Kepler hasn’t found Earth 2.0, and that wasn’t the job it set out
to do. But in its survey of hundreds of thousands of stars, Kepler found planets
near in size to Earth orbiting at a distance where liquid water could pool on
the surface. One of them, Kepler-62f, is about 40 percent bigger than Earth and
is likely rocky. Is there life on any of them? We still have a lot more to
learn.

This sizzling world is so hot iron would
melt!

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One of Kepler’s early discoveries was the small, scorched world of

Kepler-10b.

With a year that lasts less than an Earth day and density high enough to
imply it’s probably made of iron and rock, this “lava world” gave us the first
solid evidence of a rocky planet outside our solar system. 

If it’s not an alien megastructure, what
is this oddly fluctuating star?

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When Kepler detected the oddly fluctuating light from

Tabby’s
Star
,”

the internet lit up with speculation of an alien
megastructure. Astronomers have concluded it’s probably an orbiting dust
cloud.  

Kepler caught this dead
star cannibalizing its planet.

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What happens when a solar system dies? Kepler discovered a white dwarf,
the compact corpse of a star in the process of

vaporizing a
planet
.


These Kepler planets are more than twice the age of our Sun!

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The five small planets in Kepler-444

were born 11 billion years ago when our galaxy was in its youth. Imagine
what these ancient planets look like after all that time?

Kepler found a supernova exploding at
breakneck speed.

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This premier planet hunter has also been watching stars explode. Kepler
recorded a sped-up version of a supernova called a

fast-evolving
luminescent transit
” that reached its peak brightness at breakneck
speed. It was caused by a star spewing out a dense shell of gas that lit up
when hit with the shockwave from the blast. 

* All images are artist illustrations.

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How Airglow Can Help Us Understand the Sun’s I…

You may have seen the famous blue marble or pale blue dot images showing Earth from 18,000 and 3.7 billion miles away, respectively. But closer to home — some 300 miles above Earth’s surface — you might encounter an unfamiliar sight: vibrant swaths of red and green or purple and yellow light emanating from the upper atmosphere.

This light is airglow.

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Airglow is created when atoms and molecules in the upper atmosphere, excited by sunlight, emit light to shed excess energy. Or, it can happen when atoms and molecules that have been ionized by sunlight collide with and capture a free electron. In both cases, these atmospheric particles emit light in order to relax again. The process is similar to how auroras are created, but while auroras are driven by high-energy solar wind, airglow is energized by day-to-day solar radiation.

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Since sunlight is constant, airglow constantly shines throughout Earth’s atmosphere, and the result is a tenuous bubble of light that closely encases our planet. Its light is too dim to see easily except in orbit or on the ground with clear, dark skies and a sensitive camera — it’s one-tenth as bright as the light given off by all the stars in the night sky.  

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Airglow highlights a key part of our atmosphere: the ionosphere. Stretching from roughly 50 to 400 miles above Earth’s surface, the ionosphere is an electrified layer of the upper atmosphere generated by extreme ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. It reacts to both terrestrial weather below and solar energy streaming in from above, forming a complex space weather system. Turbulence in this ever-changing sea of charged particles can manifest as disruptions that interfere with Earth-orbiting satellites or communication and navigation signals.

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Understanding the ionosphere’s extreme variability is tricky because it requires untangling interactions between the different factors at play — interactions of which we don’t have a clear picture. That’s where airglow comes in. Each atmospheric gas has its own favored airglow color, hangs out at a different height and creates airglow by a different process, so we can use airglow to study different layers of the atmosphere.

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Airglow carries information on the upper atmosphere’s temperature, density, and composition, but it also helps us trace how particles move through the region itself. Vast, high-altitude winds sweep through the ionosphere, pushing its contents around the globe — and airglow’s subtle dance follows their lead, highlighting global patterns.

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Two NASA missions take advantage of precisely this effect to study the upper atmosphere: ICON — short for Ionospheric Connection Explorer — and GOLD — Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk.

ICON focuses on how charged and neutral gases in the upper atmosphere behave and interact, while GOLD observes what drives change — the Sun, Earth’s magnetic field or the lower atmosphere — in the region.

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By imaging airglow, the two missions will enable scientists to tease out how space and Earth’s weather intersect, dictating the region’s complex behavior.

Keep up with the latest in NASA’s airglow and upper atmosphere research on Twitter and Facebook or at nasa.gov/sunearth.

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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.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com. 

Spilling the Sun’s Secrets

You might think you know the Sun: It looks quiet and unchanging. But the Sun has secrets that scientists have been trying to figure out for decades.  

One of our new missions — Parker Solar Probe — is aiming to spill the Sun’s secrets and shed new light on our neighbor in the sky.

Even though it’s 93 million miles away, the Sun is our nearest and best laboratory for understanding the inner workings of stars everywhere. We’ve been spying on the Sun with a fleet of satellites for decades, but we’ve never gotten a close-up of our nearest star.

This summer, Parker Solar Probe is launching into an orbit that will take it far closer to the Sun than any instrument has ever gone. It will fly close enough to touch the Sun, sweeping through the outer atmosphere — the corona — 4 million miles above the surface.

This unique viewpoint will do a lot more than provide gossip on the Sun. Scientists will take measurements to help us understand the Sun’s secrets — including those that can affect Earth.

Parker Solar Probe is equipped with four suites of instruments that will take detailed measurements from within the Sun’s corona, all protected by a special heat shield to keep them safe and cool in the Sun’s ferocious heat.

The corona itself is home to one of the Sun’s biggest secrets: The corona’s mysteriously high temperatures. The corona, a region of the Sun’s outer atmosphere, is hundreds of times hotter than the surface below. That’s counterintuitive, like if you got warmer the farther you walked from a campfire, but scientists don’t yet know why that’s the case.

Some think the excess heat is delivered by electromagnetic waves called Alfvén waves moving outwards from the Sun’s surface. Others think it might be due to nanoflares — bomb-like explosions that occur on the Sun’s surface, similar to the flares we can see with telescopes from Earth, but smaller and much more frequent. Either way, Parker Solar Probe’s measurements direct from this region itself should help us pin down what’s really going on.

We also want to find out what exactly accelerates the solar wind — the Sun’s constant outpouring of material that rushes out at a million miles per hour and fills the Solar System far past the orbit of Pluto. The solar wind can cause space weather when it reaches Earth — triggering things like the aurora, satellite problems, and even, in rare cases, power outages.

We know where the solar wind comes from, and that it gains its speed somewhere in the corona, but the exact mechanism of that acceleration is a mystery. By sampling particles directly at the scene of the crime, scientists hope Parker Solar Probe can help crack this case.

Parker Solar Probe should also help us uncover the secrets of some of the fastest particles from the Sun. Solar energetic particles can reach speeds of more than 50% the speed of light, and they can interfere with satellites with little warning because of how fast they move. We don’t know how they get so fast — but it’s another mystery that should be solved with Parker Solar Probe on the case.  

Parker Solar Probe launches summer 2018 on a seven-year mission to touch the Sun. Keep up with the latest on the Sun at @NASASun on Twitter, and follow along with Parker Solar Probe’s last steps to launch at nasa.gov/solarprobe.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com.

Why Won’t Our Parker Solar Probe Melt?

This summer, our Parker Solar Probe will launch to travel closer to the Sun than any mission before it, right into the Sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona.

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The environment in the corona is unimaginably hot: The spacecraft will travel through material with temperatures greater than 3 million degrees Fahrenheit. 

So…why won’t it melt? 

The Difference Between Heat and Temperature

Parker Solar Probe was designed from the ground up to keep its instruments safe and cool, but the nature of the corona itself also helps. The key lies in the difference 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 an incredibly thin and tenuous part of the Sun, 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).

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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. 

So even though Parker Solar Probe travels through a region with temperatures of several million degrees, the surface of its heat shield will reach only about 2,500 F.

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The Heat Shield

Of course, thousands of degrees Fahrenheit is still way too hot for scientific instruments. (For comparison, lava from volcano eruptions can be anywhere between 1,300 to 2,200 F.) 

To withstand that heat, Parker Solar Probe is outfitted with a cutting-edge heat shield, called the Thermal Protection System. This heat shield is made of a carbon composite foam sandwiched between two carbon plates. The Sun-facing side is covered with a specially-developed white ceramic coating, applied as a plasma spray, to reflect as much heat as possible.

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The heat shield is so good at its job that even though the Sun-facing side of the shield will be at 2,500 F, the instruments in its shadow will remain at a balmy 85 F.

Parker Solar Probe Keeps its Cool

Several other designs on the spacecraft help Parker Solar Probe beat the heat. 

Parker Solar Probe is not only studying the Sun – it’s also powered by it. But even though most of the surface area of its solar arrays can be retracted behind the heat shield, even that small exposed segment would quickly make them overheat while at the Sun.  

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To keep things cool, Parker Solar Probe circulates a single gallon of water through its 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. 

It’s also important for Parker Solar Probe to be able to think on its feet, since it takes about eight minutes for information to travel between Earth and the Sun. If we had to control the spacecraft from Earth, by the time we knew something went wrong, it would be too late to fix it. 

So Parker Solar Probe is smart: 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.

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Over the course of its seven-year mission, Parker Solar Probe will make 24 orbits of our star. On each close approach to the Sun, it will sample the solar wind, study the Sun’s corona, and provide unprecedentedly close up observations from around our star – and armed with its slew of innovative technologies, we know it will keep its cool the whole time. 

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.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com

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.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com.

What’s a Blood Moon? And Other Lunar Eclipse Q…

Tonight, Australians, Africans, Europeans, Asians and South Americans will have the opportunity to see the longest lunar eclipse of the century. Sorry North America. 

Lunar eclipses occur about 2-4 times per year, when the Moon passes into the Earth’s shadow. In order to see a lunar eclipse, you must be on the night side of the Earth, facing the Moon, when the Earth passes in between the Moon and the Sun. Need help visualizing this? Here you go:

What’s the difference between a solar eclipse and a lunar eclipse?

An easy way to remember the difference between a solar eclipse and a lunar eclipse is that the word ‘eclipse’ refers to the object that is being obscured. During a solar eclipse, the Moon blocks the Sun from view. During a lunar eclipse, the Earth’s shadow obscures the Moon.

Why does the Moon turn red?  

You may have heard the term ‘Blood Moon’ for a lunar eclipse. When the Moon passes into the Earth’s shadow, it turns red. This happens for the exact same reason that our sunrises and sunsets here on Earth are brilliant shades of pinks and oranges. During a lunar eclipse, the only light reaching the Moon passes through the Earth’s atmosphere. The bluer, shorter wavelength light scatters and the longer wavelength red light passes through and makes it to the Moon.

What science can we learn from a lunar eclipse?

“During a lunar eclipse, the temperature swing is so dramatic that it’s as if the surface of the Moon goes from being in an oven to being in a freezer in just a few hours,” said Noah Petro, project scientist for our Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO, at our Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

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The Diviner team from LRO measures temperature changes on the Moon through their instrument on the spacecraft as well as through a thermal camera on Earth. How quickly or slowly the lunar surface loses heat helps scientists determine characteristics of lunar material, including its composition and physical properties.

When is the next lunar eclipse?

North Americans, don’t worry. If skies are clear, you can see the next lunar eclipse on January 21, 2019. The eclipse will be visible to North Americans, South Americans, and most of Africa and Europe.

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To keep an eye on the Moon with us check out nasa.gov/moon or follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

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