Exploring the solar wind

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The namesake of the mission is another Caltech alumnus, year-old Eugene Parker PhD '51 , who predicted, in , the existence of a supersonic solar wind—a flow of charged particles that stream off the sun, accelerating at speeds faster than that of sound. The Voyager spacecraft each have instruments similar to EPI-Hi that are designed to detect charged particles from the sun, planetary radiation belts, and beyond our solar system.

Riding the solar wind

Stone, who worked across the hall from Parker in the early s at the University of Chicago, says that Parker also correctly predicted that the solar wind would create a large bubble around the sun, now called the heliosphere. The Parker Solar Probe will study the source of the solar wind: the sun's blistering corona, with temperatures of several million degrees Celsius.

When the solar wind slams into Earth's atmosphere, it sometimes creates beautiful, glowing aurorae, but can also lead to harmful "space weather" that disrupts satellite communications and navigation systems. Of particular interest to the EPI-Hi team is the unsolved riddle of how a small fraction of the solar-wind charged particles reach near-light speeds.

Timeline of Solar System exploration

These shocks accelerate protons, electrons, and heavier ions that can reach Earth in less than an hour, creating space weather hazards to humans and hardware in space," says EPI-Hi team member Richard Mewaldt, a research professor of physics at Caltech who has been studying high-energy particles in space for 47 years. A similar phenomenon is thought to happen outside our solar system, except there the particles are known as cosmic rays. Now we will fly through the region where it is happening. This should provide us with new clues about the process," he says.

The EPI-Hi instrument consists of stacks of silicon detectors designed to snag high-speed particles and measure their energies. For the detectors to make the required measurements, we had to verify that their thickness only varied by no more than one-hundredth the thickness of a sheet of paper," she says.

The team says that figuring out how the sun accelerates particles to high energy will also rely on complementary measurements from other instruments onboard the Parker Solar Probe—instruments that will measure the solar wind, turbulent magnetic fields, radio bursts, and other phenomena.

The Van Allen Belts

After launch, the Parker Solar Probe will swing by Venus for a gravitational boost toward the sun. Riazantseva, Svetlana S. Znatkova, Igor P.

The Mission

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