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Solar System: Mission to Touch the Sun

To reach an orbit around the sun, the Parker Solar Probe was designed to take seven flybys of Venus that will essentially give a gravity assist, shrinking its orbit for nearly seven years.

By Prof. MK Othman

Solar System

Four years ago, precisely on Sunday, 12 August 2018, the most amazing international news was NASA’s 'mission to touch the sun,' by the major International News Outlets; CNN, BBC, Aljazeera, and a host of others. NASA is the acronym for National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which is a famous American agency with a clear vision of space exploration. NASA's boldly written Vision is “We reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind”. This vision is diligently being pursued with billions of US Dollars on annual basis. A space mission to the moon, Mars or any other planet may be considered a human adventure in man’s craving for acquiring terrestrial knowledge for human advancement. Thanks to this continuous adventure as the world has turned into a global village by ICT, the byproduct of this adventure. Today, many people nurse the “crazy” idea of transferring people to the friendly planet, mars for habitation. Elon Musk is a multibillionaire American tycoon.    

Musk may not be alone in touting the idea of living on Mars, during my visit to Detroit, Michigan, USA, in 2018, I met a top-class scientist, Dr Kifle G. Gebremedhin, an African American, a professor of biological and environmental engineering, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York State, the USA who confessed to me that he is among the eleven top scientists of different disciplines in America being consulted on how to make life possible for human beings on Mars. The directorial principle for their work is “nothing is impossible”. One can have a vague idea why man is considering conquering another planet based on the population explosion. In the year 1927, the world population was 2 billion and by this year, 2022 the population is 7.94 billion, by 2050, it will be 9.8 billion and by 2100, it will be 11.2 billion. As the population explosion continues unabated on a fixed earth surface, can it accommodate the population? Therefore, a wide range of people; from those with “crazy” dreams like Musk to top class, serious-minded scientists like Kifle are sedulously working to make Mars, a habitable planet. This is despite the practical impossibility for living things to survive. However, reaching out to sun orbit may be asking for too much. "We've been studying the Sun for decades, and now we're finally going to go where the action is," said Alex Young, a solar scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in a statement issued to the media. What does ‘mission to touch the sun’ mean?

To “touch the sun” means for the first time, a NASA spacecraft would swoop in and touch the sun. This spacecraft for the mission is named “Parker Solar Probe”. It was launched to make 24 orbits of the sun before swooping into the outermost part of the solar atmosphere, known as the corona, to study the sun up close and personal. A jacket of gases called an atmosphere surrounds our Sun. The corona is the outermost part of the Sun's atmosphere. There is a great mystery beyond human comprehension about the corona. Although the corona is far away (millions of kilometres) from the sun it is much hotter than the surface of the Sun. The surface of the Sun is about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, but the corona can be as much as a hundred times hotter -- with temperatures of about a million degrees. It's the most mysterious thing; it's like getting hotter as you walk away from ablaze. Parker Probe is expected to bring information that assists in resolving this mystery.

 At its closest approach, the Parker solar probe was to fly within 6 million kilometres of the sun's surface — more than eight times closer than any other spacecraft and more than eight times closer than Mercury, the closest planet to the sun. The probe was launched on Saturday, 4 August 2018, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It was to study how heat and energy move through the corona and explore what accelerates the solar winds that affect Earth and other planets. The probe was named after Eugene Parker, who first hypothesized that high-speed matter and magnetism constantly escaped the sun and that it affected the planets and space throughout our solar system. This phenomenon is now known as solar wind.

To reach an orbit around the sun, the Parker Solar Probe was designed to take seven flybys of Venus that will essentially give a gravity assist, shrinking its orbit for nearly seven years. The probe will orbit within 3.9 million miles of the sun's surface in 2024, closer to the star than Mercury. When closest to the sun, the 4½-inch-thick carbon-composite solar shields will have to withstand temperatures close to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the inside of the spacecraft and its instruments will remain at a comfortable room temperature.

"We've been inside the orbit of Mercury and done amazing things, but until you go and touch the sun, you can't answer these questions," enthusiastically said Nicola Fox, the mission project scientist as quoted by CNN. "The launch energy to reach the Sun was 55 times that required to get to Mars, and two times that needed to get to Pluto," Yanping Guo of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, who designed the mission trajectory, said in a statement. "During summer, Earth and the other planets in our solar system are in the most favourable alignment to allow us to get close to the Sun." It's not a journey that any human can make, so NASA sent a fully autonomous probe closer to the sun than any spacecraft has ever reached. Now that the mission has been on for over three years. What is the progress of the “mission to touch the sun”? To be concluded next week.

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