Astronomy is my current topic of interest. The more I discover about what goes on beyond what we are unlikely to see clearly from Earth, the more I become curious and rather addicted to know more.
Now scientists are perusing the solar system’s hottest destination – the Sun – and humanity will get closer than ever before to the stars at the centre of it. NASA’s Parker Solar Probe which will launch later this year will fly into its outer corona ‘to touch the Sun’, as the space agency’s lead scientist described it.
The robotic probe which has been named after Eugene Parker, a ninety-year-old physicist whose research underpins modern solar science, will be the fastest and hottest spaceship built, travelling at 450,000 miles per hour to avoid being sucked in by the Sun’s powerful gravity. Its heat shield will face temperatures of about 1,400°C.
Europe is also joining the rush to the Sun, launching its own probe some months after NASA’s craft. The European Space Agency (ESA)’s Solar Orbiter will sit a little further from the Sun gathering data and spotting coronal mass injections, or solar storms. These are massive eruptions that can wreck satellites, power networks and mobile phone systems by generating magnetic storms.
‘Another aim of both probes is to study solar wind, the billions of tonnes of electrified gas injected into space by the Sun every hour,’ said Professor Richard Harrison, chief scientist at the UK’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, which has built instruments for the ESA craft.
‘Since time began we have seen the Sun from only one viewpoint – our planet,’ said Harrison. ‘The solar orbiter will fly above and below it giving our first view of the Sun’s north and south poles as well as observing magnetic storms.’
Scientists are not the only people excited by such prospects. The cabinet office recently updated its national emergency disaster plan to rank solar storms as one of the most serious natural hazards faced by the UK.
NASA said one aim was to predict space weather. The data will help improve how we forecast major eruptions on the Sun and subsequent space weather events that can impact life on Earth as well as satellites and astronauts in space.
That would certainly be a step forward which is likely to give us advance notice of gigantic storms emanating from the Sun which we know very little about and could possibly cause havoc on Earth.