Ever since humankind stood on two legs and raised their head above the tall grass, they have fantasised about one thing: being hurled bodily into the Sun.
Well, that’s not quite what’s happening, but we’re getting pretty damn close to that dream. NASA‘s plan to send a spacecraft on am ambitious project to touch the Sun is now reportedly in its final phase before launch. Kicking off next July, the plan is to send the car-sized Parker Solar Probe into the Sun’s corona to study high-speed solar winds.
Travelling at more than 720,000 kilometres per hour, the probe will come within less than 6.4 million kilometres of the Sun’s surface. That may not seem close, but I promise you that it is exceptionally hot at that point. You would not enjoy being 6.4 million kilometres from the Sun’s surface.
“This may not sound particularly close — but if you think of the Sun and Earth as being 1 metre apart, then our spacecraft would be located just 4 centimetres from the Sun,” says mission project scientist Dr Nicola Fox.
How’s the spacecraft gonna survive the heat? Well, it has a helluva shield on it – 2.3 metres wide and 11 centimetres thick. It’s made up of a kind of carbon foam sandwiched between two think sheets, then covered in aluminium oxide.
The point of this mission is to answer questions about solar winds and the corona on the outside of the sun – including the question of why the corona is at least 300 times hotter than the core.
It’s expected that after launching next year, it will come closest to the Sun on December 19, 2024. What a lovely Christmas present if the world still exists at that point (questionable).
Dr Fox described the final parts of their preparation:
The mission team is assembling the spacecraft and heat shield, testing the software and systems, putting everything through the incredible rigorous simulations and environmental tests that will make sure it’s ready to launch in 2018.
OK. But how do we get in on this? Extremely keen to be on that spacecraft as it is launched into the Sun.