Witnessing the launch of the Parker Solar Probe

If you’re an IOP member you can apply for our Carers’ Fund of up to £250 to help you attend physics-related events or conferences that you might not otherwise be able to go to because you care for someone else. IOP member, Dr Pin Wu, STFC Daphne Jackson Fellow, used her grant to attend NSF’s SHINE conference and whilst she was there, she was able to witness the launch of the Parker Solar Probe with her family. Upon her return to the UK, Pin shared her experience with us.

In August I was given the opportunity to attend the 2018 SHINE (Solar, Heliospheric and INterplanetary Environment) conference, which was very special because it was scheduled within the Parker Solar Probe (PSP)’s launch window (July 31-August 19) near Cape Canaveral, and every attendee could register to attend the launch as a NASA invited guest. I was particularly eager to witness this historical moment because my research at the Bartol Research Institute was partly funded by this extraordinary mission, named after an extraordinary scientist called Professor Eugene Parker.

I met Professor Parker at a 2009 summer school organized by Professor Joe Giacalone at the Sunspot Solar Observatory. On the week of his 82 birthday, Professor Parker drove himself from Chicago to this remote location at 9200 feet altitude to give a lecture and to be with the students. There was no hotel, restaurant, banquet or even a store, just a humble canteen and some shared houses where we didn’t bother to lock the doors. In the evening, the only thing we could see outdoors were the shining eyes of deer and the bright stars in the sky. During the day, Professor Parker sat in the classroom taking notes quietly and unnoticeably. Few seemed to bother him so I decided to ask him about the story of the solar wind. Quietly, he told me one of the referees who rejected the idea had suggested him to sit down at a library to read the literature about the “empty” space. He disagreed and persisted and now here we are, 60 years of space plasma physics research!

Because SHINE and the PSP launch were in the summer, I thought it would be perfect to take my family with me to Florida, combining work and vacation in one trip. My 4 year-old, MM was excited about the idea of adding a rocket launch into her memory box as well as booing some Disney witches nearby. But the launch was delayed from 31 July to 4 August, and then 11 August. I was beginning to get anxious as our return flight was on 13 August.

On 10 August my husband, Brian, MM and I arrived at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at midnight, went through airport style security, picked up our badges and boarded the launch bus to the Apollo/Saturn V center. We sat with Mike who works on the SWEAP instrument on board PSP and his family. Mike’s daughter and MM hugged each other tight through the sleepless night/morning on the viewing bleachers. The Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle that carries PSP shined across the Banana Creek like a bright tower. Everything was ready except for a gaseous helium pressure alarm: the only “no go” among all the “go”s during the launch status check. There wasn’t enough time to fix the problem within the 45-minute launch window. Everyone left silently. In the midst of disappointment, Mike nodded quietly, “I am glad they are careful”.

When we drove back to our Orlando hotel, it was 7:00am. MM was sleeping soundly in the car seat. Exhausted, we decided to return the car. When I woke up in the afternoon, I immediately regretted it. “It is just a violation of launch limit, they can easily fix it!” I said as soon as Brian and MM woke up. Brian agreed and asked MM if she would like to go back to the launch that night. MM gave a solid “Yes!” So we rented another car. This time we planned carefully. No Disney theme park. Instead, we went for a relaxing swim. MM enjoyed her new trick of floating on water stretching out like a star. Supper was quick. We were determined to take a nap and arrived at KSC around 2AM on 12 August. We didn’t see Mike and his family and later learned that they watched from the public area so that the kids could get more sleep.

The launch took place at 3:31am was absolutely stunning. As PSP flew higher and farther, MM exclaimed “that’s a big rocket. It looks like a planet. It looks like a star now. It looks like a star!”

I am grateful to Umbelina Oliveira-Cantu for going above and beyond in assisting me and my family to attend the SHINE conference, to STFC and the Daphne Jackson Trust for funding my fellowship, to Professor Mihalis Mathioudakis and the faculty of Queen’s University Belfast for my travel grant, and to the IOP for their Carers fund.

  • Find out more about the IOP Carers’ Fund and how to apply here.

Pin Wu

Dr Pin Wu is an IOP member and STFC Daphne Jackson Fellow.

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