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Trending Science: NASA flying closer to the sun than ever before to unlock some of its mysteries

NASA has launched a new probe that will venture closer to the sun than any previous space mission.
Trending Science: NASA flying closer to the sun than ever before to unlock some of its mysteries
On 12 August, a car-sized spacecraft known as Parker Solar Probe lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, aboard the Delta IV Heavy – one of the world’s most powerful rockets. It will dive deeply into our star’s outer atmosphere, or corona, to investigate the complicated magnetic fields that surround it. “We’ve been studying the Sun for decades, and now we’re finally going to go where the action is,” said Alex Young, associate director for science in the Heliophysics Science Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a news feature on NASA’s website.

The influence of solar activity on Earth is known as space weather. Understanding the sun itself is key to understanding space weather’s origins. This will contribute to our ability to forecast major space weather events that impact life on Earth. “The Sun’s energy is always flowing past our world,” explained Dr Nicky Fox, Parker’s project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland. “And even though the solar wind is invisible, we can see it encircling the poles as the aurora, which are beautiful – but reveal the enormous amount of energy and particles that cascade into our atmosphere. We don’t have a strong understanding of the mechanisms that drive that wind toward us, and that’s what we’re heading out to discover.”

Cracking long-standing mysteries about the sun’s behaviour

Using state-of-the-art instruments, Parker will study the sun both remotely and directly over the next 7 years or so. Specifically, it will explore the physics of the corona, the place where much of the important activity that affects Earth seems to originate. Remarkably, the corona is hotter than the sun’s actual surface. Scientists don’t fully understand the mechanisms that generate this super heating. Similarly, the corona is where the solar wind gets its huge thrust in speed, sweeping out across the solar system at over 500 km/s. The spacecraft will directly sample the corona’s particle, magnetic and electric fields in an effort to solve these puzzles.

Parker will eventually arrive at its closest position to the sun, about 6.16 million km from the corona. “I realise that might not sound that close, but imagine the Sun and the Earth were a metre apart. Parker Solar Probe would be just 4 cm away from the Sun,” Dr Fox told the ‘BBC’. “We’ll also be the fastest human-made object ever, travelling around the Sun at speeds of up to 690 000 km/h … – New York to Tokyo in under a minute!”

But how will Parker survive temperatures that easily melt steel? NASA has built an impressive heat shield made of carbon composite that keeps the craft’s internal temperature at roughly room temperature.

Quoted in the same NASA news item, Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters, said: “By studying our star, we can learn not only more about the Sun … We can also learn more about all the other stars throughout the galaxy, the universe and even life’s beginnings.”

Source: Based on media reports

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