Innovation Thought

Trip to the Sun

NASA sent my name to the Sun on August 12, 2018, as part of the Parker Solar Probe – the first mission to touch the Sun. The mission is setting the record of the closest approach to the sun by an artificial object. It will take about seven years.

The Parker Solar Probe is a historic exploration; one that will leave us asking more questions than getting answers. These questions will provide another impetus for new disciplines and industries. As described by the team, the mission will provide new data on solar activity and make critical contributions to our ability to forecast major space-weather events that impact life on Earth.

The spacecraft, about the size of a small car, will travel directly into the Sun’s atmosphere about 4 million miles from the star’s surface. The primary science goals for the mission are to trace how energy and heat move through the solar corona and to explore what accelerates the solar wind as well as solar energetic particles. The mission will revolutionize our understanding of the Sun, where changing conditions can spread out into the solar system, affecting Earth and other worlds.

Credit: JHUAPL

The spacecraft, for instance, will go close enough to the Sun to watch the solar wind speed up from subsonic to supersonic, and it will fly through the birthplace of the highest-energy solar particles. It will face more heat and radiation like no spacecraft before it. For the technical minded, Parker Solar Probe, named after the 92-year-old University of Chicago professor emeritus, Eugene Parker, will use seven Venus flybys over nearly seven years to gradually shrink its orbit around the Sun, coming as close as 3.83 million miles (and 6.16 million kilometers) to the Sun, well within the orbit of Mercury and about seven times closer than any spacecraft has come before.

You can get more details about this on the mission’s website managed by The Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory or at NASA. This fact sheet is a good place to start.

One of the reports from the exploration has shown us the origin of the solar wind. Solar wind comes from the Sun and blows like ‘hurricane’s scream’. The findings show that “solar wind and the sun’s magnetic field both originate from cool holes in the corona, where temperatures are 1.1 million °C (2 million °F)”. So far, the Parker Solar Probe has made its seventh successful swing around the sun, and recently completed its fourth Venus flyby.

It has been an interesting year, so far.

While I am on the planet of my birth, Earth, I am optimistic about the discoveries this – and other ongoing journeys to space – will lead us, and what it means for the future of humanity.