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Parker Solar Probe’s French connection

This handout photo released by NASA shows the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket with the Parker Solar Probe onboard during its launch on August 12, 2018 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. AFP PHOTO/NASA/BILL INGALLS

One of the instruments aboard Nasa’s historic Parker Solar Probe, which was launched from the US on Sunday, was developed by French researchers from the University of Orleans.

Thierry Dudok de Wit couldn’t hide his pleasure on Sunday after witnessing the probe’s successful launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. He and his colleagues from the physics and chemistry lab of environment and space (LPC2E) at the University of Orleans have developed a magnetometer which, along with other instruments on the probe, could help in unlocking the mysteries of the sun’s atmosphere.

“I am extremely happy and very relieved. It was quite emotional to watch the launch, after all this time,” Dudok de Wit told RFI. “It’s really something you feel in your stomach when you see the launch.”

The LPC2E team’s magnetometer will measure the fluctuating magnetic field in the sun’s atmosphere. These fluctuations are “key to understanding what causes the solar corona to be so hot”, he said.

“Our instrument, called the search-coil magnetometer, will measure three components of the magnetic field. Together with the other instruments which measure electric fields, particles and other parts of the magnetic field, it can provide a global picture on what goes on in the solar atmosphere,” Dudok de Wit explained.

Scientists have long been puzzled by the curious nature of the sun’s atmosphere -- also called corona -- whose temperature can reach above a million degrees Celsius, while that of the surface is only 6,000 degrees Celsius. Understanding this mysterious phenomenon is essential for multiple reasons.

“It’s a general question that not only addresses the sun but also other stars. Whenever you venture into such unknown territories, you are likely to make major discoveries. And for that reason, this probe has a major potential as a revolutionary mission,” he said.

The discoveries could also improve understanding of scientific phenomena here on earth. For example, understanding the nature of corona could also help us learn more about solar wind.

“Solar wind has a direct impact on our planet and can cause outages of GPS and so on. Understanding what causes solar winds to vary has a direct impact on our ability to predict and mitigate their effects on GPS, radio communications and so on,” Dudok de Wit said.

LCP2E is one of the five French laboratories that are a part of this mission. Researchers from the Laboratoire d'études spatiales et d'instrumentation en astrophysique, Laboratoire de physique des plasmas, l'Institut de recherche en astrophysique et planétologie and CNRS’ Matériaux et énergie solaire laboratory have all contributed to this mission.

The Parker Solar Probe is expected to come within 6.2 million kilometres of the sun’s surface. In order to protect the instruments from the intense heat and radiation, the probe will have a powerful heat shield measuring just 4.5 inches thick. The sunlight will heat the shield to around 1,400 degrees Celsius. But the inside of the spacecraft will stay at just 30 degrees Celsius.

The probe is set to make 24 passes through the corona. When it nears the sun it will travel at some 692,000 kilometres per hour, making it the fastest man-made object ever made.