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Solar System: NASA Solar Mission (II)



A corollary to last week’s article, “NASA Solar Mission” to “touch the Sun” contains information on the level of investment by American taxpayers to make the mission possible, the level of human enthusiasms, support of NASA by the American citizenry and scientists worldwide; and the high level of expectation to break the inscrutable and mysteries surrounding this giant star called “Sun”. The target of the mission is to make Parker Solar Probe, the spacecraft, to orbit the sun within a distance of 6 million kilometers away from the sun’s surface in between sun and Mercury but closer to the Sun than the Mercury. This is expected to happen in 2024, six years from now and it will be the closest man – made item to the Sun, than has ever happened in the history of mankind. Readers may wonder how this mission was conceived, initiated, how it would be achieved, how much it would cost the taxpayers, the likely achievements of the mission and whether such achievements will be beneficial to mankind. The Parker Probe mission of 12th August 2018, became possible after six decades of scientific brainstorming in series of meetings, conferences and similar forums. As the brainstorming was going on, construction of the spacecraft commenced, which lasted for several years resulting to making the Parker Solar Probe to be safely on its way to flying much closer to the sun than any mission has done before. It should be noted that Parker Probe mission is not the first attempt made by scientists to reach out to the sun. Before it, there was Genesis mission. That mission was the first spacecraft to capture a sample of the solar wind, or the constant stream of particles that emanate from the sun. The Genesis performed an amazing three-year sampling round at a gravitationally stable area in space known as “Lagrange 1” before returning to Earth. Unfortunately, the spacecraft made a hard landing after its parachute failed, according to NASA, but some of the samples did survive.

Genesis mission was between the year 2001 and 2004. From the mission, scientists discovered evidence that our planet, Earth, was possibly formed from different solar nebula materials than those that created the sun. Back to Parker Probe, which is currently more than 10 days on the mission, soon scientists will start digging into its data, which is likely to keep coming for the next seven years or even more. Parker Probe moves to reach the Sun atmosphere at the average speed of 700,000 kilometers per hour, 700 times average speed of Boeing 747 aircraft. Parker Solar Probe is estimated to cost a princely amount of 1.5 billion US Dollars and its launching required a ton of speed to escape Earth’s orbit, hence a total of three rocket stages were fired at the same time of the launch to enable it moved out of the orbit. The launching force is designed to carry Parker to the neighborhood of Venus within a period of six weeks, arriving by late September. By September 28th, Parker will pull off through a careful maneuver designed to gently slow it down and begin its calculated dance with the sun. That maneuver, called a gravity assist, will pass a little of the spacecraft’s acceleration to the planet and edge the probe a little closer to the sun. Thereafter, Parker Solar Probe will then begin its first of 24 orbits around the sun, with its first close approach, or perihelion, coming on Nov 1. Each orbit will be petal-shaped, skimming over the sun closely and then flying out farther into space to close out the orbit.

The bulk of the probe’s science work will come when it is within a quarter of the distance between Earth and the sun — although the team is hoping that the instruments can be turned on for as much of the mission as possible. Parker will begin the orbit around the sun to what scientists called “geosynchronous orbit”, hovering over the same region of the sun. During this period, Parker will swoop in at a speed that closely matches the sun’s speed of rotation, and then swoop out again. While the spacecraft keeps pace with the sun’s rotation, it will be able to watch how the same region of the sun behaves over a period of about 10 days “Not a lot of people appreciate how entertaining these periods are going to be,” emphasised by Justin Kasper, a physicist at the University of Michigan and principal investigator for one of the probe’s instruments, as quoted by This will give NASA team opportunity to spend days looking at the dynamics of how one region of the sun is changing or remains constant, a mystery that needs to be unveiled. “It might take us five years to get to our closest orbit, but we should have some amazing insights into our sun just this winter,” Kasper said. “We’re going to have some amazing observations this November with that first perihelion.” There are many mysteries associated with our star (sun), which have far reaching implications to the solar system, yet sun is closest star, mankind can easily study out of trillions of stars surrounding us (earth). However, with concerted efforts of spacecraft scientists over decades of diligent research work, there is knowledge of what is inside the sun but without an understanding of how it works. Sun contains glowing ball of gas, which Earth circles every 364 and half days equivalent to one year of our lives. Core-Deep in the heart of our sun is its core, which is where the fusion reactions that power the sun take place. This region of the sun is trebly hot and dense with temperatures reaching over 15 million degrees Celsius and material is packed together more than 10 times densely than in lead. On each orbit, the spacecraft will take the same measurements at different depths in the sun’s atmosphere, which is called the corona. That layer, which is invisible from Earth, except during a total solar eclipse, reaches temperature of millions of degrees Celsius.

“The beauty of the Parker Solar Probe mission is that we are getting the same data from these different locations,” Fox said. “We really do get a chance to look at the dynamics in all different locations in the corona.” Scientists are hoping that it will help them decipher how the corona gets so hot and how the sun produces phenomena like the solar wind and solar flares, which have serious impacts on space travel, satellites and even life here on Earth. In addition to sampling different layers of the sun, the probe will catch our star displaying a complete range of activity, since it undergoes an 11-year cycle from relatively tranquil to particularly tempestuous conditions and back again. “The sun is very different during those different phases,” Fox said. “We do want to see a nice broad spectrum of solar activity. While the Parker Solar Probe is gathering all that data, the spacecraft won’t be able to communicate with Earth. Instead, it will focus on making as many observations as possible. Then, it will send back huge chunks of information in batches. Several of those data dumps will come as the spacecraft executes another crucial chore: dancing around Venus to inch closer to the sun. The probe will repeat the gravity-assist maneuver planned for late September a total of seven times throughout the mission, until the spacecraft has slipped too close to the sun to be able to loop around Venus. In addition to the observations on the sun, more information on Venus will also be obtained from this mission, if the mission goes as designed. “There is an absolute dearth of Venus missions,”

Paul Byrne, a planetary geologist at North Carolina State University, who studies the planet, told “A single flyby in and of itself would not revolutionise our understanding of Venus, but it would be extremely useful.” Venus will need its own revolution — but our understanding of the star that shapes every day of our lives will never be the same after scientists start analysing the data the Parker Solar Probe sends home. However, during the sixth gravity assist, the spacecraft won’t be aligned well to send data back to the Earth. Parker’s mission is due to last until mid-2025. If the spacecraft still has fuel, which it uses to twist itself to keep delicate instruments hidden behind a protective heat shield, the scientists hope that the mission could, theoretically, be extended. But sooner or later, that fuel will run out, and the spacecraft will be helpless, its high-tech heat shield rendered useless. The instruments and the probe’s skeleton will slowly break apart until nothing is left except the heat shield itself, Parker Solar Probe project manager Andrew Driesman, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, said during a NASA news conference on Aug 9. “In hopefully a long, long period of time — 10, 20 years, the spacecraft runs out of fuel and breaks apart and produces a carbon disk floating around the sun in its orbit,” Driesman said. Then, he added, it’s anyone’s guess how long it could circle our sun as a lonely reminder that the star once fostered humans who developed the technology to reach out and touch it. “That carbon disk will be around until the end of the solar system,” That may be millions of years to come. Well, cosmos and space were divinely made beyond total human comprehension and thus, mankind should limit his study of these perfect creatures to only those that can benefit our planet, beyond this, it could be disastrous