NASA’s cool, hot, and fast mission to the Sun

Stargazer: The Parker probe will orbit the sun 24 times during its fact-finding voyage.

How much could we learn from NASA’s next mission? This summer a probe will travel closer to the Sun than any other spacecraft in history. Scientists hope it will unlock many solar secrets.

Humanity has put men on the moon, dispatched a probe into the gassy abyss of Saturn, and sent a spacecraft beyond the solar system. And soon NASA will launch a groundbreaking mission to the place that sparked and sustains all life on Earth: the Sun.

Following its launch this summer the unmanned Parker probe will soar within four million miles of the Sun’s surface — closer than any spacecraft in history. It is built to withstand temperatures of over 1,400°C and to travel at 450,000mph, and scientist Nicola Fox has dubbed it the “coolest, hottest, fastest mission under the Sun.”

But there is also some serious science to be done. Researchers want to unlock the secrets of the corona: the Sun’s gaseous atmosphere which is, mysteriously, much hotter than its surface.

They also want to investigate solar wind: a stream of radioactive particles constantly released by the Sun. The speed and density of the wind varies over time, and occasionally huge blasts of it erupt from the corona at tremendous speeds.

The Sun may seem far away but the effects of this solar weather are felt on Earth. Navigation equipment in planes and boats can be damaged, and satellites run a particular risk of being fried. One study claimed that a severe solar blast could deal $2 trillion of destruction to the USA and cause massive power cuts.

The great defence we have against this onslaught is deep under our feet. As the Earth’s molten iron core rotates, it generates a magnetic field that stretches into space. This acts as a shield deflecting much of the radiation away. Without it, our green planet would look more like the barren Sun-blasted Mars.

But soon we could be doing more than relying on natural defences. Scientists hope the Parker mission will allow us to understand precisely why solar blasts happen, which could then let us forecast and better prepare for them in the future.

But will the research really prove that useful?

Solar power

Perhaps not, say some. It is one thing to know why solar blasts happen, but frankly, if an eruption of solar radiation were to incinerate the Earth, there is not much we could do about it. NASA should help with issues it can have a practical influence on. Just imagine the good that could be done if they devoted all their vast intellect and resources to fighting climate change.

The potential for discovery is boundless, counter others. The goal of the mission is justification enough. Solar winds present an increasing danger to human life, particularly now that we rely so heavily on digital technology. Moreover, pioneering engineering feats like this often have unforeseen benefits. Technology which sends a probe the Sun will have other uses too.

You Decide

  1. How worried should we be about solar wind?
  2. Is space exploration a waste of money?

Activities

  1. Can you remember how the solar system is structured? Draw the sun in the centre of a piece of paper. In pairs or small groups draw on the rest of the planets in order: from the closest to the Sun to the furthest away.
  2. Read and watch the resources in the Become An Expert, paying particular attention to the National Geographic piece and the second video. Give yourself 15 minutes to write a response to the following question: “What dangers do severe solar storms currently present to modern society?”

Some People Say...

“Humans are natural born scientists. When we are born we want to know why the sun rises.”

Michio Kaku

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Currently, the spacecraft that has flown closest to the Sun was the Helios 2 probe, launched in 1976. If the Parker probe works it will fly seven times closer than this record. However, the Parker craft is not yet ready to be launched. It is currently undergoing thermal vacuum testing, in which the probe is cooled to -292°C before being blasted with extreme heat.
What do we not know?
Currently, scientists have not developed a reliable way to predict when large solar blasts will occur; however, this is one of the long term aims of the Parker mission. Nor do we know why the Sun’s corona is so much hotter than its surface.

Word Watch

Saturn
The Cassini probe was launched in 1997 to research Saturn. After a mission lasting nearly 20 years it was programmed to fly into Saturn’s atmosphere, burning up in the process.
Solar system
The spacecraft Voyager 1 is currently the furthest man made object from Earth. It was launched in 1977 and has since travelled over 11 billion miles, leaving the solar system in 2013.
Launch
Scheduled for a date between July 31st and August 19th 2018.
Parker
Named after the astrophysicist Eugene Parker. This is the first time a spacecraft has been named after a living person.
Tremendous speeds
Otherwise known as a Coronal Mass Ejections. The winds here can reach speeds of up to 3,200 km/s.
Study
According to the paper, Severe Space Weather Events — Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts, released by the National Academy of Sciences.
Deflecting
The magnetic shield is weakest at the poles, where some of the solar radiation breaks through creating steams of coloured light — otherwise known as the Northern Lights.

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