When last we spoke about our celestial neighbours, I had just launched to visit our favourite, (let’s face it!), Mars.
Well, as you read this I’m off again, and once more with our iconic fiend, Mr Shatner.
But this time, no mere planet for me,…I’m heading for a Star!
Wolf 359?, ..Ceti Alpha?. Nope, nothing so exotic. Just plain ol’ Sol, our local star…the Sun.
A while back, Ol’ Bill (He likes it when I call him that!) and I put down our names to be on another microchip, this time to go on the Parker Solar Probe, Humanity’s first mission to a star.
Named after Eugene Parker, a still living Professor who postulated back in 1958 amongst other theories re the makeup of our star, the existence of what we have come to know as the Solar Wind.
This is the continuous stream of magnetism, high-speed matter and radiation that the Sun emits.
Which is also the basis behind such ideas as Solar Sails, huge super-thin sails that can spread over thousands of square metres capturing the Soar Wind and using it for propulsion as was demonstrated in the DS9 episode “Explorers”.
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is doing exactly as its name implies, probing the star. It will enter the Sun’s corona, the atmosphere that surrounds it, which is actually hotter than the Sun’s surface!
Huh!? “How can that be?” I hear you ask!
Hotter than the Sun? Isn’t that kind of, the baseline for like, really, really hot?
Yep, freaky ain’t it?
Well, that’s one of the tasks of our little friend, who’s about the size of a small car, will do. PSP will travel through the corona, making observations and taking readings. Incredibly it’s not going to melt into molten slag when it gets there because of a really cool (cough!) system that only uses about as much water as you have in your fridge to refrigerate itself. Also the fact that if you’re not in the direct flow of the sun but in shadow, you can actually be quite cold in space regardless of how close you are.
(Surprisingly, Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, experiences freezing temperatures on that side of the planet not facing the star.)
So, behind an 8ft x 44.5-inch thick shield of awesomeness made by NASA engineers called the Thermal Protection System, comprised of carbon composites, the PSP will be quite safe provided it always keeps itself oriented towards Earth. When it does swoop through the corona at around 430,000mph/700,000kph, it will also be the fastest human-made object in history. It will gain some of that speed as well as lose it by flybys of Venus; getting “gravity assists” by swinging around that planet the same as you do when swinging a ball at the end of a slingshot instead of just throwing it.
PSP will make 24orbits of the Sun over almost seven years coming in as close as 3.7 million miles, closer than any man-made object ever. It will trace energy flow that heats the solar wind and corona, ascertain the structure of the plasma and magnetic fields that compose that solar wind and explore what transports and accelerates the magnetic particles.
Guess what powers the instrument packages…Solar power!
Noooo you say?
Yes, I say, really!!
That close to the source of ALL solar power in our world, the onboard solar panels will provide over 25% more power than if they were in Earth orbit but they’ll be exposed to some pretty horrendous conditions, like temps as high as 2500 degrees F so cooling them is part of the whole trickiness of the mission.
Interestingly, Parker will also be the autonomous spacecraft yet, having a time lag of 18 minutes to Earth and back of radio signals in the most dynamic environment yet, so the decision making capability of the probe was a priority. In other words, if stuff starts to cook, there won’t be time for a discussion group!
When I first heard about this mission, I contacted NASA about adding an experimental warp drive of my own design to accelerate the probe around the sun on its last orbit to try and crack the Time Barrier.
They haven’t got back to me yet.
Strange about that.
» Credit: YouTube Videos linked to sources.