Solar System: Mission to touch the Sun II

By Prof. M.K Othman

This is a continuation of last week’s article “Solar System: Mission to Touch the Sun”, which might have left many readers amazed at the level of seriousness of scientists exploring the universe. One may be surprised to know that the mission is costing a princely amount of 1.5 billion US dollars to American taxpayers to make the mission possible. The level of human enthusiasm; NASA’s support from American citizens and scientists worldwide; and the high level of expectation to solve the incomprehensible and mysterious mysteries surrounding this giant star known as “Sun.” The mission’s goal was to build Parker Solar Probe, a spacecraft that would orbit the sun at a distance of 6 million kilometers from the sun’s surface, between the sun and Mercury, but closer to the sun than Mercury. This is expected to happen in 2024, two years from now, and will be the closest man–made object to the Sun ever seen in human history. Readers may wonder how this mission was conceived, initiated, how it will be achieved, the likely achievements of the mission, and whether such achievements will be beneficial to mankind.

The Parker Probe mission of August 12th, 2018 became possible after six decades of scientific brainstorming in a series of meetings, conferences, and similar forums. As the brainstorming was going on, construction of the spacecraft commenced, which lasted for several years, resulting in the Parker Solar Probe being safely on its way to flying much closer to the sun than previous missions. It should be noted that the Parker Probe mission was not the first attempt made by scientists to reach out to the sun. Before it, there was the Genesis mission. It was a 3-year mission accomplished between the years 2001 and 2004. 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. 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, it has spent more than three years on the mission. The Parker Probe moves to reach the sun’s atmosphere at an average speed of 700,000 kilometers per hour, 700 times the average speed of a Boeing 747 aircraft. What is the progress of the Parker Probe?

As of December 2019, the Parker Solar Probe had made three dives toward the sun as it reached the fastest speed ever clocked by a human-built vehicle. Scientists released the mission’s first batch of findings. The information revealed the dynamics of the sun, making it even weirder than once imagined. The sun is essentially a big ball of hydrogen and helium. It remains a complex ball of mystery. The mysterious question; why is the solar atmosphere superhot much hotter than the sun’s surface? The surface of the sun—which is seen as a yellow disk in the sky—is about 10,000 degrees Celsius. That is toasty, but cool compared with what lies above it, in the thin atmosphere known as the corona. There, the temperatures jump by a factor of 300 or more, to millions of degrees. The corona also accelerates the solar wind, the million-kmph stream of particles that fly outward from the sun.

By December 16th, 2021, the Parker Solar Probe, had officially “touched” the sun. Yes, you read it right. The spacecraft plunged through the unexplored solar atmosphere known as the corona of the Sun. It made its way through an extreme environment that was roughly 2 million degrees Celsius.
There are many mysteries associated with our star (sun), which have far reaching implications for the solar system, yet the sun is the closest star to our planet, Earth, which mankind can easily study out of the trillions of stars surrounding us (earth). However, with concerted efforts, spacecraft scientists over decades of diligent research work, there is knowledge of what is inside the sun but without understanding how it works. This is what the Parker is likely to unveil at the end of its mission.
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 will be rendered useless. At a NASA news conference on August 9th, 2018, Andrew Driesman, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, said that the heat shield itself, Parker Solar Probe project manager Andrew Driesman, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. “Hopefully, after a long, long time—10, 20 years—the spacecraft runs out of fuel and disintegrates, leaving 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. Mankind is inadvertently inching towards making an indelible mark on the orbit of the sun, a feat that was beyond human imagination just 3–4 decades ago.
My take, 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. Kada muje mu nemo wata rigima (let sleeping dog lies) as sang by Mamman Gawo, a famous singer of Niger Republic.

While this mission to touch the sun, bizarre as it sounds, is actually taking place, we must learn a lesson or two as Africans. We must invest more in science and technology to enable us to conquer hunger, poverty, and misery and bring hope to the citizenry. It is the first thing that needs to be done before the development of spacecraft technology in Africa. Unfortunately, in Nigeria, we seem to be failing in conquering hunger and poverty, with its consequential insecurity rearing its ugly head in every corner of the nation. No thanks to bad governance and indiscipline.

Othman, professor of soil and water engineering, writes from NAERLS, Ahmadu Bello University Zaria.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here