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(And Save Us From So­lar Flares)

It is 1958. The US gov­ern­ment has just founded the na­tion’s first space agency, NASA. In an­other 10 years, the first as­tro­naut will set foot on the Moon, mak­ing the or­ga­ni­za­tion syn­ony­mous with mankind’s great­est achieve­ment in space. How­ever, the sci­en­tists of the new agency are not dream­ing of the Moon, they have their sights on a much more in­ter­est­ing heav­enly body: the yel­low gas ball at the cen­tre of our so­lar sys­tem. Ever since the 1940s, when as­tronomers dis­cov­ered that a se­ries of in­ex­pli­ca­ble phe­nom­ena are tak­ing place in the Sun’s red-hot sea of plasma, i t has aroused their pro­fes­sional ap­petite. One of the ma­jor mys­ter­ies is how the Sun’s outer at­mos­phere, the corona, can be mil­lions of de­grees warmer than the un­der­ly­ing sur­face, which is the source of the heat. Now, 60 years later, NASA has built the Parker So­lar probe, which is full of newly de­vel­oped cool­ing tech­nolo­gies and heat-re­sis­tant ma­te­ri­als. Fi­nally, the space agency can achieve one of its old­est aims: mak­ing a probe touch the Sun’s red­hot at­mos­phere.


The probe is the first ever to be named af­ter a liv­ing per­son. In 1957, 30-year-old as­tro­physi­cist Eu­gene New­man Parker from the En­rico Fermi In­sti­tute of the Univer­sity of Chicago was work­ing hard on the math­e­mat­i­cal for­mu­las for a sci­en­tific ar­ti­cle about so­lar ra­di­a­tion. In the ar­ti­cle, he de­scribed, how the Sun emits a flow of charged par­ti­cles, be­com­ing the first physi­cist to de­scribe the phe­nom­e­non of so­lar wind.

Parker’s the­ory was con­tro­ver­sial in the world of science, and his sci­en­tific ar­ti­cle was se­verely crit­i­cised by the physi­cists who were to ap­prove it for pub­li­ca­tion in the Astro­phys­i­cal Jour­nal. But no­body could find any er­rors in his for­mu­las, and more than 10 years later, Parker’s the­o­ries about the ex­is­tence of so­lar wind were con­firmed by ob­ser­va­tions made by the Mariner 2 space probe in 1962. The dis­cov­ery led to new sci­en­tific fas­ci­na­tion with the Sun and trig­gered a se­ries of ques­tions, which sci­en­tists have tried to an­swer ever since, but in vain. Which pro­cesses inside the Sun pro-duce so­lar wind? How does the plasma in the Sun’s corona move, and which mech­a­nisms are re­spon­si­ble for the Sun’s ex­treme par­ti­cle ac­cel­er­a­tion?

Ac­cord­ing to plan, the Parker So­lar probe will be launched in Au­gust on a seven years jour­ney,

NASA PROBE OR­BIT EARTH MER­CURY THE SUN CLOS­EST PAS­SAGE: Dis­tance to the Sun: 5.9 mil­lion km High­est tem­per­a­ture: 1,377 °C Ra­di­a­tion: 475 times that on Earth VENUS

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