By Published: Sept. 15, 2020

CU on the Weekend Lecture on Sept. 19 to cover NASA’s Parker Solar Probe and CU Boulder’s contribution to the FIELDS Instrument

Approaching the sun closer than any spacecraft has before, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe mission aims to answer fundamental questions about the solar wind.

Playing a role in the success of that mission is Assistant Professor David Malaspina who worked with the University of Colorado Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, who helped make a signal processing board for the Parker Solar Probe’s FIELDS Instrument, which measures electric and magnetic fields near the Sun and is one of the four instruments that are part of the mission.

David Mapaspina

At the top of the page: The Parker Solar Probe, launching this summer, will collect data from the sun's corona. Its mission will bring the spacecraft closer to the sun than any manmade object in history and the data will help predict the impacts of solar weather. Image courtesy of NASA. Above: David Mapaspina

CU on the Weekend

A virtual Zoom webinar

A Mission to Touch the Sun

September 19, 2020


Malaspina will discuss the Parker Solar Probe mission, the solar wind—a continuous stream of charged particles that flows from the surface of the sun through the solar system—and the university’s contribution to the spacecraft’s FIELDS instrument on Sept. 19, from 1-2:30 p.m. in a virtual Zoom webinar, titled A Mission to Touch the Sun, as part of the CU on the Weekend lecture series. Registration for the virtual lecture is required. 

The CU on the Weekend lecture series is coordinated by the Office for Outreach and Engagement.

"It's exciting,” said Malaspina. “It has more of a climax to it than missions where you answer the science question immediately after making one observation. With this mission, you have to survive the whole time to get closer and closer to the sun." 

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe mission is providing more insight into current theories about how the sun generates solar wind. With its ability to withstand the high temperatures close to the Sun, the spacecraft will do this by recording in situ measurements—data collected in the field.

These data allow scientists to further understand space weather, the interactions that occur between earth and the sun’s particles and magnetic fields and Earth’s magnetic field. Space weather drives phenomena such as the aurora, the amount of radiation that aircraft, spacecraft and astronauts encounter, and disruptions to power lines and oil pipelines.

To approach within 3.8 million miles of the sun’s surface on its final orbits, the spacecraft’s carbon-foam heat shield will help the Parker Solar Probe resist temperatures as high as 2500 Fahrenheit (about 1377 Celsius). The spacecraft will travel at speeds no other spacecraft has achieved, reaching nearly 180 kilometers per second as it closes in on the sun.

CU Boulder created a signal processing board for the FIELDS instrument, which processes, compresses and sends electric and magnetic field data back to Earth. 

After completing five orbits—out of 24 allotted—around the sun, Malaspina explains that the data are already revealing much about the sun, with both previously anticipated and entirely surprising results. Thus far, over 100 scholarly articles have been published about recent findings.

"These first orbits were the furthest out, where all the effects that we want to see, the differences between the theories and observations are the weakest, so every time we get closer, we see more and more deviation from what we expected to see, and we're going to get into the regions where we can answer those fundamental open questions," said Malaspina.

The Parker Solar Probe concept was first proposed in 1958, but the mission’s execution was continually postponed due to cost and lack of technology. The mission finally launched in August 2018.

At the same time, the European Space agency launched the Solar Orbiter spacecraft in February, 2020. This mission will enable high-resolution images of the sun’s polar regions. The National Science Foundation also built Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Maui, Hawaii, to provide a view of the sun’s atmosphere from Earth with unprecedented clarity.

Malaspina explains that the space environment is as much a part of our environment as everything that surrounds us in our day to day lives on Earth. Studying the space environment is a way to understand what’s out there and how we fit in this environment, he says.

“It's where we live. The Earth exists in space. Solar activity impacts what happens on Earth, it affects the environment around us," said Malaspina. “To me, it's a fundamental calling to understand the environment in which we live.”