NASA has sent its Parker Solar Probe closer to the Sun than any spacecraft before it, and if life didn’t feel insignificant before, then the pics sent back from the craft this week sure make the world feel a little less small.
In fact, when it all feels a bit much, there’s nothing like trying to comprehend how big existence is, the scale of everything makes the usual insecurities pale in comparison.
To the untrained eye, the fact the heavily-shielded probe has come within 15 million miles of the Sun could appear to still have a long way to go on its journey. Luckily NASA researchers put things in perspective.
If Earth was at one end of a yard-stick and the Sun on the other, Parker Solar Probe will make it to within four inches of the solar surface.
There’s 36 inches in a yard (thanks Google). That’s a hell of a trip. Almost makes going back to Cornwall for Christmas seem like a trip to the shops.
The images received from the Parker Solar Probe from November 8 have been highly anticipated by scientists, who are excited to learn more about the physics of our star, the Sun.
On December 12, four such researchers gathered at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, DC, to share what they hope to learn from the probe.
Nicola Fox, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said:
Heliophysicists have been waiting more than 60 years for a mission like this to be possible. The solar mysteries we want to solve are waiting in the corona.
The above image is the closest-ever photo of the sun emitting solar material, an event known as a corona streamer.
The bright white spot is sunlight reflecting off Mercury, which is millions of miles away from the probe. The black spots are photo remnants of both Mercury and Jupiter, which orbited as the probe took long exposure photos of the coronal streamer.
NASA are trying to find out how the Sun’s outer atmosphere (the corona) is heated to temperatures about 300 times higher than its visible surface below, how the solar wind accelerated to the speeds recorded, and how some of the Sun’s most energetic particles rocket away at more than half the speed of light.
To achieve its aims, the Parker Solar Probe must match the speed of the Sun’s rotation, meaning it needs to fly faster than 213,000 miles per hour.
NASA described the mission poetically:
As we send spacecraft and astronauts further and further from home, we must understand this space environment just as early seafarers needed to understand the ocean.
To infinity and beyond!
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