I'm an award-winning science journalist with 10 years of experience writing about space and physics. I have a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science communication from UC Santa Cruz (go slugs). On August 6, NASA is launching a spacecraft to go closer to the sun than any engineered object has ever been. The Parker Solar Probe will 'taste' the sun's atmosphere and solve some of the most pressing solar mysteries. I'm writing about it, and I'll take your questions from 1:30-2:30 Eastern time. AMA!

Proof: https://twitter.com/astrolisa/status/1021809387126644737

Edit: Thanks for the great questions! I've gotta run, but I'll by 3-ish Eastern to answer more!

Edit: Hi again, I'm back!

Edit: And that's a wrap! Thanks so much for your questions, everybody. Keep an eye out for more news about the Parker Solar Probe in the coming days and weeks.

Comments: 273 • Responses: 29  • Date: 

chickachickabowbow295 karma

Are you going at night?

Science_News197 karma

Well the launch time is scheduled for about 4 am Florida time, so, sort of. But once the probe leaves Earth I don't think night and day will mean much to it anymore.

Rockettech5-1 karma

Science_News19 karma

Oh don't worry. We got the joke.

ItsWhopper137 karma

What mysteries are you most hoping to get some answers to?

Science_News302 karma

The Parker Probe aims to address three main mysteries:
1. Why is the corona (the sun's wispy atmosphere) so dang hot? The sun's surface is about 5500 degrees Celsius, but the corona is several millions of degrees. That's weird - usually when you move away from a heat source, things get cooler, not hotter. So Parker is looking for waves or tiny flares that could heat the corona up.

  1. What accelerates the solar wind? The wind is a constant flow of charged particles that streams away from the sun, and can mess up electronics and satellites on Earth (it's also responsible for the aurora borealis). Scientists want to know how it speeds up, whether it has multiple components or if it's just one smooth flow, and try to predict its effects on earth.

  2. What is the structure and dynamics of the plasma and magnetic fields at the sun, where the solar wind is born?

hldsnfrgr39 karma

Do you think these 3 questions will be answered in one go? Or will there be similar missions in the future?

Science_News99 karma

Hard to say! If they're lucky, they'll get enough data to disentangle everything. But they'll probably find things they didn't expect and raise new mysteries, too.

captainamerigull88 karma

What are some of the things the engineering team is doing to protect the probe from the intense heat?

Science_News158 karma

Most of the probe and its science instruments will be hidden behind a heat shield that was designed specifically for the mission. It's made of a sandwich of carbon materials and it can be heated to 1370 degrees Celsius without trouble. Here's a video of engineers from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab testing it with a blowtorch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGrmNoZbcpk

So behind the heat shield, it should be room temperature, around 30 degrees C. But a few instruments - one to detect some of the particles in the solar wind, one to measure magnetic and electric fields - will actually see the sun. They had to be made from special materials like niobium alloys and sapphire in order to function.

edit: Correction, the engineers were not from NASA, as previously stated

iklassic32 karma

so far close does a tolerance of 1370 correspond to as far as distance from the sun? might it not get destroyed because of the corona?

Science_News88 karma

The probe will be 6 million kilometers (about 3.7 million miles) from the sun at its closest approach of the mission. The corona won't burn it, mainly because it's so diffuse. It's like how you can put your hand in the oven for a short time and be fine, but if you touched a stove at the same temperature, it would burn you. The same idea applies to the spacecraft.

captainamerigull21 karma

That sounds challenging! Do you know if any other projects that have had to engineer instruments for this degree (haha) of heat resistance, or is the Parker Solar Probe team attempting something that hasn't really been done before in this area?

Science_News43 karma

Some of the same materials are used in things like nuclear fusion experiments. But no other spacecraft has had to deal with this kind of environment before. This is really uncharted territory!

INTPx4 karma

Those are not nasa engineers.

Science_News3 karma

Good catch. Correction noted in edits

iwanttoeatcow54 karma

Why did you choose to go into space journalism instead of working directly in astronomy?

Science_News158 karma

Short answer: I realized I liked talking about astronomy research more than I liked actually doing it. This way I can be a micro-expert in everything and I never have to specialize.

chimangolatino53 karma

This... resonates with me right now. Got my degree in astronomy last year (a licenciatura, something similar to a masters degree) and landed a comfy job as staff astronomer at Yale Southern Astrograph (now called OAFA's double astrograph). I've always liked more talking about astronomy than doing research.

Science_News67 karma

Reach out to me on Twitter if you want to talk more - I'm @astrolisa. :)

hitura-nobad43 karma

Hitura from r/parkersolarprobe here, what will be the space craft final fate after completing it's mission ?

Science_News117 karma

Eventually the probe will fall into the sun, disintegrate and become part of the sun. Which I think is sad and beautiful.

carlitosrochita32 karma

Thanks for your awesome answers and your awsome work, it is wonderful and rad!

Have you seen the YouTube Video "Captain Big Shaq travels to the Sun to prove that man's not hot"? Did it served as inspiration to you or your team about the implications of going so near the Sun?

Science_News15 karma

I have not seen that!

Gildolen30 karma

  1. The sun doesn't really have a ground, so what counts as 'touching' the sun?

  2. What is the purpose of this? What will we learn if all goes as planned?

Science_News42 karma

Great question! The spacecraft will fly through the solar corona, which is the wispy atmosphere that you can see during a total solar eclipse. It's part of the sun, it's definitely connected to and influenced by the sun, but it's not the part we normally think of as the sun's "surface." And you're right, the sun doesn't really have a surface, it's all gas and plasma in different densities and configurations. There are named regions - the photosphere is the part we can see, the chromosphere is just above that, the corona is further out still - but the boundaries between them aren't well defined.

For more on what the probe will learn, see this answer: https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/91jga5/im_lisa_grossman_astronomy_writer_for_science/e2yflp9/
and our story: https://www.sciencenews.org/article/nasa-parker-solar-probe-aiming-sun

shepherdcrane29 karma

Do you know when data will be available to citizen scientists?

Science_News44 karma

The first data will come back to Earth in December, if all goes well. I don't know when it will be available to the public though.

shepherdcrane14 karma

December! I did not realize it would be that long, How long for it to get to orbit? Then I guess some time for comissioning the instruments in their new environment.

Science_News53 karma

Also the Parker Probe will be the fastest human-made object in the solar system - it will be going 700,000 kilometers per hour at peak speed.

Science_News17 karma

Exactly! And to give it time to do its first close pass to the sun, which I think will happen in October. The sun is far away!

MikeCanter22 karma

Your cousin Rachel wants me to ask you a dumb question: What sort of recording (video, audio, photographs) will the probe be doing, and if it includes photography, how will NASA account for the film's color temperature?

She also wants me to ask you an even dumber question: Was the moon landing staged?

Science_News65 karma

Hi Rachel! The probe will mostly be recording things like how many charged particles of this particular type pass by the detectors in a given amount of time - not very pretty. I think the scientists will be able to translate some of the data into audio, it may sound like a hiss. The spacecraft does carry a camera, called WISPR, but it won't be aimed directly at the sun - it's just there to provide context for the other instruments. I think its images will be in black and white. But scientists will be able to compare the things that Parker sees close to the sun with images from telescopes that orbit Earth and take pictures of the sun, like STEREO (https://stereo.gsfc.nasa.gov/).

And lol no the moon landing was real, we definitely discussed this at Thanksgiving once

YesJ3ssica21 karma

Love your writing. How do you think the current administration will affect future space programs?

Science_News84 karma

That's a tough one. The current administration seems to be really into space, but they're also really into privatization - they're talking about turning the International Space Station into a private facility sometime in the 2020s. It's hard to say how that will affect research.

I think the most frustrating thing about administration changes is that each new president wants to put their mark on the space program, so they change direction every 8 years or so. The Bush admin wanted to go back to the moon, under Obama we were doing a Journey to Mars, now we're back to the moon again. It makes it hard to complete anything.

coryrenton16 karma

What is the most exciting story you've worked on from a scientific POV that was the hardest to translate into something that would be interesting to the general public?

Science_News43 karma

Fun question. I think I have to choose this story I wrote in 2012, about a theoretical "time crystal" whose elements repeat in time, rather than in space: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21328484-000-death-defying-time-crystal-could-outlast-the-universe/ (It's behind a registration wall, sorry.) A time crystal could live longer than the universe, if you could build it. Really fun stuff, but confusing!

maxp84z13 karma

I really like your necklace. Are you a musician???

Science_News21 karma

Thanks! I sing alto in a classical choir. I used to play clarinet and piano, but I'm way out of practice.

tactics1412 karma

What's your prediction for the year man will step foot on Mars and how important do you, personally, feel manned missions to other worlds are?

Science_News28 karma

I think the "when" depends more on social and economic factors than science - the technology to do it could be mature within a decade. Whether anyone does it or not is another question.

I think crewed* missions to space are inspiring and awesome, but I think there's a lot of good science that can be done without humans, at lower risk and lower cost. I wrote about some of the risks to potential Martian microbes from human exploration in January: https://www.sciencenews.org/article/manned-mission-mars-humans-microbes-life This stuff is complicated!

*I prefer "crewed" to "manned" because not all astronauts are men.

unknown_pigeon11 karma

August 6th is my birthday. Will you send me a cake on a rocket? BTW, congratulations for your achievement _^

Science_News26 karma

Happy birthday! I can't send a cake, but the Parker Probe is taking a chip with thousands of people's names etched on it to the sun: http://parkersolarprobe.jhuapl.edu/The-Mission/Name-to-Sun/

samsavv10 karma

what are you making this probe out of to keep it from completely falling apart?

Science_News23 karma

The parts that will actually see the sun are made from a niobium alloy called C103 that is used in rocket engines, an alloy of titanium, zirconium and molybdenum called TZM, and tungsten. The team also had to attach some of the tiny screws in one of the instruments with very thin niobium wire to keep them from falling out during launch. On most spacecraft, the engineers just glue screws in, but close to the sun the glue would melt!

MountVernonWest5 karma

What's the maximum temperature that the probe can tolerate? What type of alloys were used?

Science_News7 karma

The heat shield and the parts that stick around it can withstand 1370 degrees Celsius (everything behind the heat shield will chill at room temperature). The parts that will actually see the sun are made from a niobium alloy called C103 that is used in rocket engines, an alloy of titanium, zirconium and molybdenum called TZM, and tungsten.

angelicoq5 karma

So, will be the probe be able to go into the sun's corona, or does that still remain sci-fi?

Science_News12 karma

It will fly right through the sun's corona and "taste" the particles there.

mikeramey14 karma

What's your favorite thing about space?

Science_News18 karma

The possibility that life exists on other planets.

needmorexanax3 karma

Is it possible to one day use the sun as an energy source? Not just solar energy. Would you think of of the sun as an untapped source of energy?

Science_News22 karma

You mean like a Dyson sphere? I don't see any reason that couldn't work in theory, but it seems inefficient to leapfrog over regular solar energy and start constructing something in space anytime soon. We haven't maxed out the potential of solar energy in the traditional sense, by a long shot.

Also Parker Probe will use solar energy, but solar panels hate getting hot! So it will have to tuck the solar panels mostly behind the heat shield when it's close to the sun, and actively cool the panels off with tubes of pressurized water.

Danitoba2 karma

You're the Lisa that appears on Brady Harran's youtube channels, aren't you. DeepskyVideos, SixtySymbols, Numberphile, etc. Pleasure to see you here My question :

Will the probe survive and return near Earth in one piece?

Science_News6 karma

That actually must be a different Lisa! The probe won't return to Earth - it will end up disintegrating and becoming part of the sun.

iklassic-1 karma

Any chance we end up nuking the sun by mistake?

Science_News4 karma

Not a whit. The sun is big, the probe is small (about the size of a car). In a fight, the sun will win.