After nearly three years in space, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has not only made numerous passes around our fiery orb, inching closer to the Sun than any spacecraft before it, but it has also ushered in discoveries that are shaping scientists’ understanding of Earth’s star.
For its efforts to untangle the long-standing mysteries of the complex solar environment, the Parker Solar Probe team has earned the National Space Club and Foundation’s Nelson P. Jackson Award, which recognizes the most outstanding contribution to aerospace in the preceding year.
“Goddard scientists are proud to work together with the diverse Parker Solar Probe science teams from universities and research laboratories, leading to groundbreaking discoveries of how our Sun shapes our space environment,” said Dr. Adam Szabo, mission scientist for Parker Solar Probe at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
The Parker Solar Probe spacecraft has successfully endured the brutal conditions near the Sun’s corona with the help of its cutting-edge heat shield, water-cooled solar panels and high-precision guidance and autonomy systems, allowing for unprecedented and long-awaited close-up observations of our star.
These observations are addressing questions that puzzled scientists for decades, such as how the Sun’s corona is heated and how the solar wind accelerates away from the Sun to inevitably impact our environment on Earth.
The Parker Solar Probe team has started piecing that puzzle together, thanks to the intrepid spacecraft and its suite of instruments, which have given scientists hints at the previously unseen dust-free zone surrounding the Sun, as well as front-seat views of the turbulent activity near the Sun. For example, the magnetic field embedded in the solar wind – the Sun’s constant outflow of material – whips back on itself until it is pointed in the opposite direction in a phenomenon dubbed “switchbacks.” Along with observations of other plasma phenomena, Parker Solar Probe is helping scientists understand what drives energetic particle storms and coronal mass ejections, major events that can reverberate across the solar system and even on Earth.
“This recognition is another testament to the mission’s success and reflects how important it is to study not only the Sun and its immediate environment, but pursue space exploration in general, as the science community continues pushing the boundaries of space research,” said Parker Solar Probe Project Scientist Dr. Nour Raouafi, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. “Parker Solar Probe is exceeding all expectations, and the mission’s science return has just been amazing.”
Parker Solar Probe — named for Dr. Eugene Parker, who first theorized the concept of the solar wind in the 1950s — launched in August 2018 and is on its way to completing 24 passes around the Sun, eventually moving within 4 million miles of the solar surface. During its most recent close approach to the Sun, called perihelion, in April 2021, Parker Solar Probe broke its own records for solar proximity and speed, coming within about 6.5 million miles (10.4 million kilometers) of the Sun’s surface while moving faster than 330,000 miles per hour (532,000 kilometers per hour).
Parker Solar Probe is part of NASA’s Living with a Star program to explore aspects of the Sun-Earth system that directly affect life and society. The Living with a Star program is managed by the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, manages the Parker Solar Probe mission for NASA and designed, built, and operates the spacecraft.
The National Space Club and Foundation bridges industry and government to foster excellence in space activity. A panel of experts spanning the aerospace and defense industries, government and academia selected the Parker Solar Probe mission for the honor, which is named for the club’s founder and past president, Nelson Pete Jackson. Last year’s award went to the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration team for the first picture of a black hole, taken on April 10, 2019.
The 2021 Jackson Award will be presented to the Parker Solar Probe team at the 64th Annual Goddard Memorial Dinner on Sept. 17.
For more information about Parker Solar Probe, visit nasa.gov/parker.
By Justyna Surowiec
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md.