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First Manmade Object Touches the Sun

 

Parker Probe render // image via NASA

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe becomes the first human-made object to reach the sun’s atmosphere, said by many it ‘touches the sun.’

Scientists announced this ground-breaking news last week at the American Geophysical Union. The Parker Solar Probe was deemed to have “touched” the sun in April when it reached the corona – the sun’s atmosphere. While the definition of “touching the sun” is dependent on several factors, it is something worthy of note.

 

 

For many years, humans have attempted to do the “impossible.” On July 20, 1969, Mother Luck shined on the human race when the Apollo 11 spacecraft landed on the moon.

It was a buzz of excitement and fulfilment for the Nixon-led administration of the US as Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin Jr., and Michael Collins orbited around the moon and put their footprints on it.

Since then, more projects have been put in place to see humans travel to other planets and unravel the mysteries of life in space. About 60 years ago, NASA set out to find out the intricacies of the solar system. This led to the launch of The Parker Solar Probe spacecraft in 2018 – named after American solar astrophysicist, Eugene Parker.

The sun is the closest star to the earth with a temperature of about 5,600°C. It is the source of energy on the earth. A human cannot possibly go near it because the result would be catastrophic to the body.

We can only imagine the charred remains. In the future, it could be possible. However, the answers remain unclear today as scientists haven’t come up with an efficient solution.

We should revel in the euphoria of the Parker Solar Probe instead. It is quite memorable because nothing else has ever “come near” the sun and lived to tell the tale.

To answer the question of if the spacecraft really touched the sun, NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen said in a blog post that, “what it means to touch the sun requires some defining, since the sun doesn’t have a solid crust like the earth”.

As mentioned earlier, the spacecraft touched the sun in April. Thomas Zurbuchen explained that NASA did not announce it until the results of the data were confirmed. He continued that the results are now confirmed and shows that the spacecraft sampled data “that were not part of the supersonic solar wind, but the slower moving atmosphere instead.”

The sun doesn’t have a solid crust but has a limit that cannot be seen with the eyes. The limit is where solar materials stop being “stuck” with the sun and are free to detach from the source and escape outwards.

 
 
 
 
 
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The limit is called The Alfven Critical Surface. Thomas further explained that a thorough understanding of this phenomenon was crucial to the success of the mission.

The Parker Solar Probe flew through the sun’s atmosphere and accessed its outer envelope, also known as the photosphere. By the eighth flight through the sun, the Probe got close to 13 million kilometres from the sun’s surface and finally found its way into the solar atmosphere where it stayed for five hours.

The Solar Probe Cup made it possible for the spacecraft to withstand the intense atmosphere of the sun. It is an instrument that collects particles from the sun’s atmosphere. It is made up of heat-tolerant chemicals like Tungsten, Sapphire, Niobium, and Molybdenum.

Thankfully, several questions have been answered. The Probe confirms scientists’ calculation of the distance of the outer boundary of the sun to its surface to be between 4.3 million and 8.6 million miles. It took 8.1 million miles for the Probe to cross it.

The spacecraft also confirmed speculations that the sun’s boundary isn’t smooth but contains “spikes and valleys.” Furthermore, the spacecraft unravelled a discovery about switchbacks (zig-zag structures in the solar wind) – how that they are formed in the photosphere and have a high concentration of Helium.

Despite this, NASA confirms that the mission is far from over as the spacecraft is still on course to get closer to the sun until all questions are answered. It will orbit around the sun 24 times and is expected to reach about 4 million miles from the sun in 2025.