Feature

A place in the sun

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Science  03 Aug 2018:
Vol. 361, Issue 6401, pp. 441-445
DOI: 10.1126/science.361.6401.441

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Summary

On or soon after 11 August, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will blast off, aiming for the sun’s corona, a tenuous atmosphere of hot charged particles, or plasma, on the first of 24 flybys between now and 2024. During those flybys, its carbon heat shield must keep the probe’s fragile electronics safe while temperatures on its surface soar up to a steel-melting 1370°C. If all goes well, the spacecraft—safe in the shadow of the shield—will beam back a record of the corona’s plasma and the tangled net of magnetic fields that shape it. Those data could solve fundamental mysteries. For example, what heats the plasma to more than 200 times the temperature of the sun’s surface? And how does the solar wind, a stream of plasma particles, escape into space? The $1.5 billion Parker isn’t the only big upcoming project aimed at the sun. On the Hawaiian island of Maui, astronomers are putting finishing touches on the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST), a $350 million project funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation. With a 4-meter mirror, DKIST is more than twice the size of the largest existing solar telescopes. It should be able to zoom in on the sun’s surface with unrivaled sharpness when operations start in June 2020. That same year, the Solar Orbiter is due to launch, with €780 million in core support from the European Space Agency. The spacecraft will observe high-energy radiation rippling through the corona from slightly farther away than Parker. “It is absolutely a unique time for solar physics,” says Valentin Martínez Pillet, director of the National Solar Observatory in Boulder, Colorado, the organization building DKIST. “There is combined science that we can do that is going to be awesome.”

  • * Joshua Sokol is a journalist based in Boston.