Jean Carlos Perez, an assistant professor of physics and space sciences, has been awarded a five-year, nearly $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s prestigious CAREER program.
The NSF initiative, known fully as the Faculty Early Career Development Program, is among the agency’s most competitive awards. It is given annually to just a handful of early-career faculty “who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the NSF.
The grant will fund Perez’s work on the theoretical understanding of solar wind turbulence near the Sun, a topic that will be in the spotlight soon with the Parker Solar Probe mission to be launched from Kennedy Space Center in August.
The probe will, on its final three orbits, fly to within 3.8 million miles of the Sun’s surface – about seven times closer than the current record-holder, the Helios 2 spacecraft, which came within 27 million miles in 1976, according to NASA. Protected by a 4.5-inch thick carbon-composite shield, the craft is expected to survive temperatures approaching 1,400-degrees Celsius (2,552 degrees Fahrenheit).
The Parker Solar Probe will carry four instrument suites designed to study electromagnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles, and close-up images of the Sun and its corona – and Perez is looking forward to studying the data it will produce and comparing them to models and state-of-the-art numerical simulations from his team and collaborators.
His work involves understanding the role plasma turbulence has in the heating of the solar corona, which is the 12,000-mile-high ring of superhot plasma that comprises the upper solar atmosphere. The corona is intriguing because it is far hotter, at about 1 milion degrees Celsius (1.8 million Fahrenheit), than the 5,000-degree Celsius (9,032 Fahrenheit) surface of the Sun.
It is a decades-old puzzle as to why the temperature rises so dramatically from the surface of the Sun to the corona, and why at the same time the density drops dramatically. And then there is the solar wind. The hot corona gives rise to this flow of ionized gases from the Sun that streams past Earth at speeds of more than 500 km per second (about a million miles per hour) but that is so tenuous it would not toussle your hair if you were able to stand in its path.
Perez’s NSF-funded research – to understand the role plasma turbulence plays in the heating of the corona and acceleration of solar wind – will be greatly aided by data from the Parker Solar Probe.
“We are aiming to close the theoretical gap that we have in understanding turbulence in this area,” he said.