NASA’s journey to the Sun

NASA’s first-ever space mission to 'touch the Sun' aims to unravel many secrets surrounding this native star.

WrittenBy:Martand Jha
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On August 12, 2018, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched its first-ever solar probe mission that aims to touch the Sun. The spacecraft, known as the Parker Solar Probe, is about the size of a small car and will touch the Sun by entering its atmosphere. The spacecraft will be about 4 million miles away from the Sun’s surface when it enters the Sun’s atmosphere.

Technical details apart, the questions that arise are: what is the primary goal behind such a mission, and what would it contribute to space research in general? The answer lies in the fact that the Sun is the most important star of our solar system. For decades, many questions have been raised regarding the Sun’s atmosphere. Till date, whatever is known about the Sun’s surface and its nearby environment is purely theoretical, though it has long been observed using high-efficiency telescopes. The fundamental aspect of science is that it longs for precision and exactness—and NASA’s mission aims for just that.

The other justification for such an expensive mission is that whatever happens within and around the Sun has a direct impact on our solar system and, by extension, on the Earth and its atmosphere. Some concrete answers from this mission would help space agencies and governments to position their satellites better based on the different kind of radiations that fall on them directly via sunlight. Also, it might have an impact on the stationing of astronauts in orbit.

The spacecraft will be well within the orbit of Mercury and will use Venus’s gravity during seven flybys over nearly seven years to gradually bring its orbit closer to the Sun. NASA has sent missions towards the Sun in the past, even till Mercury, but never beyond that. This spacecraft will be seven times closer to the Sun than any previous spacecraft.

In terms of space exploration, this mission will throw greater light on the origins and evolution of the solar wind. The mission will also make critical contributions in developing the ability to forecast changes in Earth’s space environment. One striking feature of this spacecraft that has caught attention is its speed. According to NASA, “At closest approach, Parker Solar Probe hurtles around the Sun at approximately 430,000 mph (700,000 kph). That’s fast enough to get from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., in one second.”

The mission also hopes 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. Many of the existing mysteries surrounding the Sun are expected to be resolved if this mission is successful.

The Parker Solar Probe is expected to cross Venus on October 3, and its first close encounter with the Sun is expected to happen on November 5. It’s been designed to withstand extreme conditions and temperature fluctuations. NASA says, “The key lies in its custom heat shield and an autonomous system that helps protect the mission from the Sun’s intense light emission, but does allow the coronal material to ‘touch’ the spacecraft.”

Of course, this is all still theoretical. No matter how one designs and tests equipment by creating similar conditions on Earth which exist near the Sun, it’s a completely different ball game once the spacecraft actually passes through the Sun’s atmosphere.

Space exploration is an expensive business. The US is one of the pioneers of space exploration and research and has both the will and capability to invest in such costly missions. India is still looking to place its first astronaut to the outer space by 2022, (as announced by the Indian Prime Minister during his Independence Day speech) while the US achieved the same feat 50 years ago.

That’s one way to look at the gaps that exist between our space programme and the American space programme. However, the fruits of scientific discovery help the global scientific community at large. The knowledge that will come out of this mission will help future solar missions, and one assumes China or Russia will be next in line with their own missions.

That’s the main reason why all eyes are set on this mission. The mission’s success would boost the confidence of astrophysicists and space agencies, leading to a paradigm shift in the arena of space research. The Sun has been the sustaining life force for Earth, and NASA’s daring and audacious attempt to visit it will unravel many new secrets of the native star of our solar system.


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