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Solar System: NASA Solar Mission

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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 host of others. NASA is the acronym of National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which is a famous American agency with a clear vision on 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. In my previous articles on this subject, I expressed my trepidation for justification on the colossal fund being expended on the mission to Mars, then suddenly, “mission to touch the sun”. Readers may recall my article “Solar System: Man’s Discoveries and Activities on Mars II”, which was published in this Column on October 14th, 2016. In that article I appointed out the concerted effort of NASA Scientists to send their first manned mission to Mars by the year, 2020.

As NASA is assiduously making this effort on manned mission to Mars, there are people with the “crazy” idea of not only visiting Mars but also colonising it and making it a second planet to be occupied by man within the next 40 to 100 years. A leading personality in this crop of adventurers is Elon Musk, the chief executive officer of SpaceX. He is a co-founder, CEO, and product architect of Tesla Motors; co-founder and chairman of SolarCity; co-chairman of OpenAI; co-founder of Zip2; and founder of X.com which merged with PayPal of Confinity. As of June 2016, he has an estimated net worth of US$12.7 billion, making him the 83rd wealthiest person in the world by ranking of 2016. As revealed by Wikipedia, in addition to his primary business pursuits, Musk has also envisioned a high-speed transportation system known as the Hyperloop, and has proposed a VTOL supersonic jet aircraft with electric fan propulsion, known as the Musk electric jet. Musk is not only in the club of world rich men but he is also a genius, at the age of 10, he developed an interest in computing with the Commodore. He taught himself computer programming and at the age of 12, sold the code for a BASIC-based video game he created called Blastar, to a magazine called PC and Office Technology for approximately US$500. A web version of the game is available online. Musk’s topmost preoccupation is to send “suicide adventurers” to live on Mars.

Musk may not be alone on touting the idea of living on Mars, during my recent visit to Detroit, Michigan, USA, 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, USA, who confessed to me that he is among the 11 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 vague ideas of 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, 2018 the population is 7.6 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? This is why 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 in spite of the practical impossibility for living things to survive. However, reaching out to sun’s 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, solar scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, 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 will 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 kilometers) from 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 a blaze. Parker Probe is expected to bring information that will assist in resolving this mystery.

At its closest approach, Parker Solar probe will fly within 6 million kilometers 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 last Saturday, 4 August 2018, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It will study how heat and energy move through the corona and explore what accelerates the solar winds that affect Earth and other planets. The probe is named after Eugene Parker, who first hypothesised that high-speed matter and magnetism constantly escaped the sun, and that they affects the planets and space throughout our solar system. This phenomenon is now known as the solar wind. Six weeks after launch, the probe will encounter Venus’ gravity for the first time. It will be used to help slow the probe, like pulling on a handbrake, and orient the probe so it’s on a path to the sun. “The launch energy to reach the Sun is 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 is sending a fully autonomous probe closer to the sun than any spacecraft has ever reached. The probe will have to withstand heat and radiation never previously experienced by any spacecraft, but the mission will also address questions that couldn’t be answered before. Understanding the sun in greater detail can also shed light on Earth and its place in the solar system, researchers said.

“We’ve been studying the Sun for decades, and now we’re finally going to go where the action is,” said Alex Young, solar scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, in a statement.
In order to reach an orbit around the sun, the Parker Solar Probe will take seven flybys of Venus that will essentially give a gravity assist, shrinking its orbit over the course of 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 four and a half-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 by Nicola Fox, the mission project scientist as quoted by CNN. What else to add? Best of luck and hope the mission will benefit humanity. While this mission to touch the sun sounds bizarre, we must learn a lesson or two as Africans, we must invest more in science and technology to enable us conquer hunger, poverty, misery and bring hope to the citizenry. It is the first thing that needs to be done before development of spacecraft technology in Africa.

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