Extreme tech to probe sun’s atmosphere

What happens in space should be of interest to everyone; especially for the reason that the existence and dynamics of the earth is controlled by its relationship with the other components of the solar system.

A topic that makes my wife uneasy, for example, is the delicate positioning of the earth by gravity in relation to other celestial bodies. She usually does not want to think about the fact that we live on a body (earth) that is suspended in space and that we are perpetually rotating (around the sun) with the earth. Now, if something should upset this delicate physical balance in relation to the earth’s gravity and the solar system, the earth may actually spiral out of control, carrying with it everything that is located on it, including trees, animals and humans. Obviously, the possibility is there that humans may one day cease to exist because of the physical environment of the solar system.

Therefore, our existence on earth cannot be taken for granted. This is why we should oppose human activities that compromise the integrity of the earth’s atmosphere.

We need to understand the solar system better in order to appreciate our universe. After all, most of what keeps us alive on earth – like food – comes from the sun. So, shouldn’t we strive to understand the sun a little bit more; or may be a lot more?

A few decades ago when I told people my field of research, which is aeronautics and astronautics – also sometimes referred to as aerospace engineering, more often than not, they usually retorted saying that we should solve the problem on earth first before we worry about the problem in space. Fair enough, but aircraft innovation, with its undeniable value, is a notable outcome of aerospace engineering.

Furthermore, it should be a division of labour; we should not all be doing the same thing. While some students are studying agriculture, economics or computer science, others should be allowed to study mechanical or aerospace engineering. After all, we all have different talents and interests. It’s not difficult to imagine how happy I was to learn of the Bachelor’s degree programme in aeronautical and astronautical engineering at the Kwara State University (KSU), Ilorin. One of my daughters who has a couple of degrees in aerospace engineering brought the existence of the programme at KSU to my attention.

The initiative to properly understand our solar system is currently being undertaken by the United States (US). At 3:31am on August 12, 2018, a 1,424-pound, car-size spacecraft, called the Parker Solar Probe, was launched by NASA on a seven-year mission for the purpose of ultimately exploring the atmosphere of the sun. The launch pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, USA, was used. The probe was launched as a payload of the Delta IV Heavy rocket, which is an expendable launch vehicle built by the US Government prime contractor, United Launch Alliance. The rocket is loaded with 460,000 gallons of fuel. The $1.5bn Parker Solar Probe sits on top of the rocket; the rocket itself is propelled by RS-68A engines.

The fuel is liquid hydrogen, while the oxidiser is liquid oxygen. The probe has been under development for 60 years.

The earth orbits the sun and is located at an average distance of 93 million miles from it. Towards the end of its mission, the probe’s continuously tightening orbits around the sun will take it to within four million miles of the sun, leading to a rendezvous with the sun. (This will be the closest to the sun that any probe has travelled.) At this proximity to the sun, the sun’s gravitational attraction is 475 times stronger than it is on earth. This strong gravity results in a strong pull on the probe, leading to the fastest human made object. At this orbit, the speed of the probe is estimated at 430,000 miles per hour, or 125 miles a second. The unmanned spacecraft will attain this speed approximately on December 24, 2024, as it nears the sun on the 20 seconds orbit of its planned 24 orbits around the sun.

For a perspective on this speed, the typical top speed of commercial airplanes is slightly less than 600 miles per hour. Thus the probe, near the sun, will travel at approximately 700 times faster than a commercial airplane. It will take this probe under one minute to travel from Lagos to London if it were to be travelling at the stated speed on earth.

The precise mission of the probe is to investigate solar wind (or corona) and study extreme particle physics. The solar corona is a five-million-mile-thick superheated atmosphere (1,400 degrees centigrade) of charged particles (plasma). From the corona, these particles collectively stream out into space as solar wind. The sun’s atmosphere is the breeding ground for large and potentially destructive blasts called solar flares and (coronal) mass ejections. When these streams of highly energetic charged particles strike earth, they interact with the earth’s magnetic field, causing some havoc such as jeopardising the safety of astronauts aboard the international space station and compromising the integrity of electricity generation grids on earth.

As you can see, we have many reasons to want to understand our celestial environment.

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