Touching the Sun

We all know the Sun’s light and heat – generated 90 million-plus miles away – are essential to life on Earth. The Sun is also the source of solar winds that impact Earth’s magnetic field, altering satellites’ orbits and potentially disrupting vital electronic systems, such as the power grids that electrify our world. Forecasting space weather events is an enormous challenge today, but NASA’s on a mission to advance our ability to protect the satellites and systems we so fundamentally rely on.

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe (PSP) recently launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida as the first-ever mission to “touch” the Sun. At about the size of a small car with a heat shield that can withstand temperatures of 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, PSP will fly within four million miles of the Sun’s surface, closer than any other spacecraft in history, on a mission once thought impossible, to realize a nearly 60 year-old dream.

PSP will measure the Sun’s magnetic field within its corona, the region of space surrounding the Sun which can reach temperatures 300 times hotter than the surface. The probe will help scientists gain a better understanding of the origins of solar winds, or the “break-away” effect, when pieces of the Sun’s corona break-away from its atmosphere and collide with surrounding planets. With a heat shield designed to keep vital instrumentation at “room temperature” covering just one side of the spacecraft, PSP will fly in an elliptical orbit, so its instrumentation always faces away from the Sun.

Peraton, via its long term partnership with NASA on its two key space communications programs – the Space Communications and Network Services (SCNS) under the Goddard Space Flight Center and the Deep Space Network (DSN) under the Jet Propulsion Laboratory – provided mission integration and communications services for the Delta IV launch vehicle and the PSP spacecraft.

Peraton’s teams worked in tandem with NASA’s developers on the build, launch plan, and subsequent lifecycle support of the mission. The meticulously planned launch event went as anticipated without any issues, and in fact, concluded early – a testament to the teams’ expert preparation. When asked about any anomalies during the launch, Peraton’s DSN program manager replied, “Other than the actual mission, our goal is for nothing exciting to happen, and that’s the exact result we got – a smooth, problem-free launch.”