NASA’s Parker probe makes daring flyby of Sun

Nosy Parker: NASA’s solar probe is going into dangerous temperatures to collect information about the Sun. ©NASA

The Parker probe has now completed two flybys of the Sun, coming closer to its fiery surface than any man-made object in history. Could the mission unlock the secrets of the Sun?

When NASA was founded in 1958, a special committee drew up a list of 14 missions the agency should pursue, including visits to all of the planets in the solar system. Over the decades, each of these founding aims have been achieved in some form except for one: sending a probe into the Sun’s fiery, volatile atmosphere. That is, until now.

In the past days, the Parker Solar Probe has swooped into the Sun’s fiery corona, where it was blasted with 1,300C heat. Parker is the fastest man-made object in history, using Venus’s gravity to catapult itself towards the Sun at speeds of up to 430,000 mph.

The probe has now completed two of 24 solar orbits, each taking it closer to the surface until it passes within 3.8 million miles of our star in 2025.

“That might not sound close, but imagine the Sun and the Earth were a metre apart. Parker Solar Probe would be just 4cm away from the Sun,” explained Dr Nicky Fox.

For its treacherous passage, Parker has been fitted with an 11.5cm-thick carbon-composite sunshield, which will keep it operating at 30C in surroundings thousands of degrees higher.

The aim? Scientists hope to unlock the secrets of the Sun’s mysterious corona, a violent atmospheric layer where magnetically-charged particles are fired across the solar system in what is known as “space weather”.

Bafflingly, while the Sun’s surface is roughly 6,000C, temperatures in the corona can reach as high as three million degrees.

The study could have important implications for life on Earth. A powerful blast of solar activity directed at our planet could knock satellites offline, disrupt communication and trigger continent-wide blackouts.

In 2012, two solar flares narrowly missed Earth. “If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces,” physicist Daniel Baker said two years later. Experts predict such an event could cost the US economy $2 trillion in damage.

Currently, scientists have no understanding of why these solar storms happen or how to predict them, but they are hoping information sent back by Parker could change that.

Ring of fire

How important is NASA’s latest mission? Very important, according to some experts. All life on Earth depends on the Sun, yet we know very little about why it behaves as it does. The closest a probe has been to the Sun is 43 million miles. Aside from the invaluable insight into a mysterious region, Parker might help us predict solar flares and protect our civilisation from devastation.

However, others view the project as unimportant. There are many other things far more likely to threaten life on Earth than solar wind. They argue that there isn’t enough money around, and the $1.5-billion price tag of the project would be better spent tackling imminent threats, such as climate change.

You Decide

  1. Should we invest in space exploration when the world faces so many problems?
  2. How will the information brought back by the Parker probe benefit Earth?

Activities

  1. Research and draw the life cycle of a star, with annotations to explain the characteristics of each stage.
  2. Debate: “We should stop spending money on space exploration.” In pairs, choose who will argue for and against. Research and write your one-page argument and then hold the debate.

Some People Say...

“Following the light of the Sun, we left the Old World.”

Christopher Columbus

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The last time a powerful solar storm directly struck Earth was in 1859, disrupting telegraph wires in Europe and America. During the Carrington event, as it is known, the Northern Lights, normally confined to the Arctic Circle, were seen as far south as Cuba and Hawaii.
What do we not know?
How our modern infrastructure would cope with a similar event, as we now rely on satellites and other technology that would be affected adversely by an electromagnetic blast. Mobile phones and air travel could be severely disrupted. We also don’t know when the next storm is likely to happen, but scientists warn that the Sun is going through a period of increased activity known as the “solar maximum”.

Word Watch

Parker
NASA named the probe after Eugene N. Parker, a retired University of Chicago astrophysicist who was the first to predict the solar wind. It is the first time NASA has named a mission after a living person.
Sunshield
The probe has a water-powered cooling system that took 10 years to develop.
Space weather
Solar wind is composed of particles shot out of the Sun with so much energy that they escape the star’s gravity and are blasted through the solar system. A large explosion of these particles is called a “coronal mass ejection”, or solar storm.
Communication
During Hurricane Irma in December 2016, the Sun experienced a 10-day boom in activity. Solar winds worsened the chaos of the hurricane by disrupting radio communications.

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