Blockchain, biotech, biorobotics, AI, computing and flying cars – there’s a lot going on around the latest technology in the world and we are now moving towards the realms of sci-fi at newly intense pace. Despite all that, and the occasional practical (but boring?) call to focus attention on getting our house in order on the planet we live on first, there is something uniquely exciting and interesting about good old rocket science! After a lull spanning decades, Man is once again boldly going where none have before.
The quest for a deeper understanding of the solar system and universe that our own Earth’s secrets of life are just one tiny corner of took a tantalising new step yesterday as Nasa’s Parker Solar Probe blasted off from Cape Canaveral.
The probe was carried by NASA’s Delta IV Heavy rocket a day later than originally planned after a technical glitch requiring its computers to be reset meant Saturday’s original launch date had to be cancelled. The probe’s mission will take it far closer to the Sun than any before it – within 3.83 million miles of the surface of our solar system’s star. Until now, the closest we’ve sent a probe to the Sun was the 1976 Helios 2 mission that reached a distance of 27 million miles, around 7 times further away. The Parker Solar Probe, named after Eugene Parker, the 91-year old solar physicist who first identified the existence of solar wind back in the 1950s and was yesterday there to watch blast off.
The probe’s mission is to send back data on the Sun’s corona, its outermost atmosphere. It will do so from an orbit of Venus, which will be flown around seven times, the last circumnavigation of which will see it reach record speed’s for a man-made object of 430,000 mph. That’s the equivalent of traveling from London to Edinburgh in 3.25 seconds.
NASA hopes the mission will provide deep new insights into the solar wind that hurls streams of charged particles into the solar system at a million miles an hour. When solar storms whip up the increased stream of particles sent in Earth’s direction affect weather systems and can even knock out satellites. What we learn as a result of the data the Parker Solar Probe sends back should provide a far more complete understanding of our star.
The outer corona layer of the Sun’s atmosphere is thought to be hotter than inner layers – a paradox that defies current understanding of the laws of physics. It is hoped that will have significant implications on not only how we understand the universe and other stars but also our own planet. That could have practical applications here on Earth, particularly around predicting weather patterns and protecting satellites, which are becoming increasingly important to keeping the latest technology in the world functioning.
The Parker Solar Probe is the ultimate example of the latest technology in the world reigniting our ambitions around space exploration. The probe was built by a team at the Johns Hopkins University’s applied physics laboratory in Maryland led by project scientist Nicky Fox. A carbon composite heatshield protecting the probe’s nose, which will be kept pointing towards the star to take the brunt of the heat, is key to it being possible to get so much closer to the Sun than ever before. Onboard computers will be powered by 1.12 million solar wings. Those will only generate 388 watts, roughly enough to power blender but scientific technology carried has been especially designed for power efficiency.
Speaking at the launch, Eugene Parker, the scientist the probe is named after, enthused:
“All I can say is ‘wow’, here we go. We’re in for some learning for the next several years.”
Project science lead Nicky Fox commented:
“It’s a spacecraft loaded with technological breakthroughs that will solve many of the largest mysteries about our star, including finding out why the sun’s corona is so much hotter than its surface. And we’re very proud to be able to carry Gene’s name with us on this amazing voyage of discovery.”