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NASA announces ambitious mission to the sun

Nick Whigham and AP, June 1, 2017 6:00PM Herald Sun

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A NASA spacecraft will aim straight for the sun next year, bearing the name of the astrophysicist* who made a groundbreaking prediction about the sun’s solar winds 60 years ago.

The space agency announced fresh details about the red-hot mission this week including the fact that it would be named after Eugene Parker, a professor emeritus* at the University of Chicago.

The mission is set to launch in the middle of next year. The spacecraft, called the Parker Solar Probe, will be put into orbit* within 6.2 million kilometres of the sun’s surface.

It is not the first time humans have tried to get a closer look at the sun.

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In 1976 a joint venture between NASA and West Germany’s space agency launched a pair of probes that went within about 43 million kilometres of the sun’s surface — which is closer to the sun than the planet Mercury at 57.9 million km. But the reason we had to wait until now to get any closer is because we didn’t have the materials available to undertake such a gruelling* mission.

The probe will experience brutal heat and radiation like no other man-made structure before.

The spacecraft, and its instruments, will be protected by a carbon-composite* shield almost 12cm-thick to enable it to withstand temperatures of 1377 degrees Celsius.

The purpose of the mission is to study the sun’s outer atmosphere and better understand how stars like ours work.

Scientists hope it will also give us greater insight into intense solar storms which could impact Earth.

This NASA photo obtained May 31, 2017 shows several bright bands of plasma on the Sun connecting from one active region to another, even though they are tens of thousands of miles away from each other on May 17-18, 2017, these connecting lines are clearly visible in this wavelength of extreme ultraviolet light. A new NASA mission aims to brush by the sun, coming closer than any spacecraft in history to its scorching heat and radiation in order to reveal how stars are made, the US space agency said May 31, 2017. After liftoff from Kennedy Space Center in Florida in July 2018, the Parker Solar Probe will become the first to fly directly into the sun's atmosphere, known as the corona. / AFP PHOTO / NASA / Handout / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / NASA/GSFC/Solar Dynamics Observatory" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS media_cameraThis NASA photo shows several bright bands of plasma on the Sun. Picture: AFP

NASA is also interested in finding out more about the sun’s corona, the massive hole in the heart of the star. Experts think that the corona is cooler than the sun’s atmosphere, but they have no idea why.

“Until you actually go there and touch the sun, you really can’t answer these questions,” said mission project scientist Nicola Fox of Johns Hopkins University.

While 6.2 million kilometres may not sound that close, it is by solar standards, Ms Fox said.

Dr Parker, who turns 90 next week, said next year’s mission was “heroic”, especially the science behind the spacecraft that will endure such extreme conditions.

The probe will be “ready to do battle with the solar elements* as it divulges* the secrets of the expanding corona,” he said.

NASA Announces First Mission To Fly Directly Into Sun's Atmosphere media_cameraUniversity of Chicago astrophysicist Dr. Eugene Parker listens as NASA officials announce plans for its probe into the sun’s atmosphere. Picture: AFP

The spacecraft will carry a chip containing photos of Dr Parker as well as a copy of his groundbreaking research paper from 1958.

Dr Parker’s prediction of solar wind — the intense plasma* flow from the sun — was initially met with scepticism* and even ridicule*. But his prediction was confirmed a few years later by observations from another NASA spacecraft.

Scientists now understand that solar wind, or heliosphere, has a big influence on the solar system.


astrophysics: the scientific study of space and stars

emeritus: retired

orbit: the circuit around a sun or planet

gruelling: extremely tiring and demanding

carbon-composite: an extremely strong thin fibre mostly made of carbon atoms

element: essential characteristic

divulge: make known

scepticism: doubt

ridicule: to mock or dismiss



Activity 1: What’s it all about?

Read the story and answer these questions:

i. Where is the Parker Solar Probe travelling to?

ii. Why has it taken so long to send this mission?

iii. How close to the sun will the probe travel?

iv. How hot will it get?

v. What will protect the probe?

vi. What do the scientists want to learn from the mission?

Time: allow about 20 minutes

Curriculum links: Science

Extension: What do you think the Parker Space Probe will look like?

Think about what the probe will have to do.

Design the probe and use labels to explain the different parts of the probe.

Time: about 30 minutes

Curriuculum links: Critical and Creative Thinking, Design and Technologies

Activity 2: What do we know about the sun?

Brainstorm as many ideas as you can think of and write them down.

Here are some questions to get you started:

What does the Sun look like? What is the sun? What does the Sun do for the Earth? What does the sun do in our solar system? What is it made of?

Share your points with a partner and write down new information from their brainstorm.

Time: allow about 20 minutes

Curriculum links: Science

Extension: Do you know what a sundial is? Find out and write sentences describing them and what they are used for.

Then make a sundial! Find out how to do this on the NASA website

Time: allow about 60 minutes

Curriculum links: Science, Design and Technologies


(Vocabulary, Connectives, Openers and Punctuation)

Activity 1: Hot, hot, hot!

Figurative Language Challenge — Create some similes, metaphors and alliterations to describe the sun.

For example:

the sun struck like an arrow (simile)

a fiery ball in the sky (metaphor)

the splendid silent sun (alliteration)

Extension: Use the figurative language you have created to create a poem about the sun.

Approximate time frame: 30 minutes

Curriculum Links: English, Big Write and VCOP

Activity provided by Andrell Education,

Extra Reading in space