Editorial

NASA's mission to the Sun, important and amazing

Monday, August 13, 2018

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Mr Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), probably described best the significance of the agency's launch yesterday of an unmanned mission to probe the Sun.

“This mission truly marks humanity's first visit to a star,” Mr Zurbuchen said. “We've accomplished something that decades ago lived solely in the realm of science fiction.”

For more than 60 years, we are told, scientists have dreamed of building a spacecraft like the Parker Solar Probe, which blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on what is intended to be a seven-year mission described by NASA as “strategically important” to scientists' desire to delve into the mysteries of dangerous solar storms.

NASA has explained that the Parker Solar Probe should get within 3.83 million miles of the Sun's surface, close enough to study the phenomenon of the solar wind and the Sun's atmosphere — the corona — which is 300 times hotter than its surface.

“Scientists hope this close encounter will give them a better understanding of solar wind and geomagnetic storms that risk wreaking chaos on Earth by knocking out the power grid,” a wire service report stated yesterday.

“These poorly understood solar outbursts could potentially wipe out power to millions of people,” the report said, adding that experts have pointed out that a worst-case scenario would cost up to US$2 trillion in the first year alone and take a decade for full recovery.

The significance of being armed with information that could help mankind prevent, or at least limit the effects of that type of damage to our planet cannot be overstated.

Project scientist and University of Michigan Professor Justin Kasper is reported as saying that the Parker Solar Probe will help scientists do a much better job of predicting when a disturbance in the solar wind could hit Earth.

Scientists have also said that knowing more about the solar wind and space storms will help protect future deep space explorers as they journey toward the Moon or Mars.

Space travel and exploration my seem like an extravagance to people who are struggling to make ends meet, especially in today's world which is rife with problems such as hunger, homelessness, and many other issues that affect the quality of human life. However, there is no denying that mankind has benefited tremendously from space travel as the knowledge gathered by scientists has led to the development of technologies that have contributed to advancements in human life.

Water purification systems, scratch-resistant lenses, CAT scans, wireless headphones, and home insulation are just a few of the many items developed through NASA's research.

To say that we are excited and hopeful about the Parker Solar Probe would be an understatement. For, like Mr Eugene Parker — the 91-year-old solar physicist who first described the solar wind in 1958 and in whose honour the spacecraft has been named — we believe that mankind is “in for some learning over the next several years”.

Aside from the heat shield developed by NASA to protect the spacecraft, we can't help but be amazed at the speed at which the craft will travel when it gets near to the Sun — 430,000 miles per hour.

That, the scientists tell us, will make it the fastest ever human-made object, speedy enough to travel from New York to Tokyo in one minute. Wow!

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