October 3, 2017
NASA aims to ‘touch’ the sun5 min read
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has embarked on many successful missions from rocketing astronauts to the moon to launching the first spacecraft to reach interstellar space. But it hasn’t yet sent a mission to the sun. The deterrent clearly has been because of the heat. Our nearest star, the sun has a surface of 10,000°F, but its outer atmosphere—the corona—soars to some 3.5 million degrees Fahrenheit.
It’s a mission that’s been in the works for nearly 60 years and NASA says it will launch a spacecraft in 2018 to “touch the sun,” sending it closer to the star’s surface than ever before.
The spacecraft is small, its instruments would fit into a refrigerator, but it’s built to withstand temperatures of more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, all the while maintaining room temperature inside the probe.
Heat shield lead engineer Betsy Congdon from the Johns Hopkins University stated that “Even though the sun is so close to us, there’s actually a lot about it we don’t understand,” Scientists are hoping the data gathered might solve some of the big mysteries about the sun.
First, what allows the sun to fling winds out at supersonic speeds? Understanding this will be important for protecting astronauts during space travel, and solar events can damage satellites and knock out power on Earth.
Second, why is the sun’s atmosphere actually hotter — 300 times hotter — than its surface? Mission project scientist Nicola Fox of the Johns Hopkins lab said “That defies the laws of nature” said at a news conference.
The probe is expected to complete 24 orbits over the course of more than six years, looping closer to the sun and eventually hurtling toward it at a speed of 450,000 miles per hour.
It’s worth noting that the probe will not literally touch the sun’s surface — the closest it will get is about 3.9 million miles away.
It basically involves “putting up a big umbrella.” The shield is an 8-foot wide disc made of layers of carbon, which would get burnt to a charcoal crisp if it weren’t for the fact that there’s no oxygen in space.
NASA also recently announced that it is naming the spacecraft after Eugene Parker, a retired physicist who predicted the existence of solar winds almost 60 years ago. He is about to turn 90, and this is the first time NASA has named a spacecraft after a researcher during their lifetime.
Parker’s ideas fundamentally changed the study of the sun and the European Space Agency also has plans to launch a probe toward the sun.