Icarus Reborn

The Parker Solar Probe, photo simulation by JHUAPL in Nature.com.

In the decade that I grew up, Americans went to the moon. Then, we flew reusable planes into space, a couple of which turned into spectacular disasters. Since then, most of NASA’s activity has been relegated to the back sections of newspapers or museums. Astronauts dying have a tendency to turn off people’s appetite towards science. Add in the politics of government financing, and when you can’t even agree to spend money on providing food or medicine to people, then funding decade-long programs to shoot a few people off towards a distant planet seems pretty impossible.

But a couple of stories this week in those science sections caught my eye, and I am pleased to report that NASA, as well as international space exploration, is alive and well. Humans have been going into space, one small research grant at a time. Well-played, NASA.

Barbecue Spacecraft

What’s the fastest human-made object that’s ever traveled? The Parker Solar Probe zipped near the sun in September of this year at 213,000 miles per hour. In comparison, the escape velocity of rockets leaving earth is only about 30,000 mph, which is still hundreds of times faster than we’d experience in a plane. Parker, which was named for University of Chicago (my alma mater) scientist Eugene Parker, who first hypothesized about solar winds, was launched two years ago to explore the sun. Apparently, it’s finding out some really cool things.

Of course, the probe has to get very close to the sun to do this, and in its third dive around Sol, Parker was about 15 million miles out—halfway between Mercury and the sun. Plans are for it to make another couple dozen circuits, which should generate speeds nearly twice as fast and bring it twice as close. On the surface of the sun, the temperature runs around 10,000 o F, although at the corona, the thin covering around the sun, the temperatures can be millions of degrees, up to 300 times hotter. Parker won’t get quite that close, but it’s built to withstand up to 1400 o C, which is steel-melting territory.

Where’s Parker? On any given day, you can find out

Blowin’ in the Wind

Even though GPS and satellite technology are really only a few decades old, it’s almost hard to imagine functioning without our phones, computers, and television. But all of those things that really on space-based objects are at risk from solar storms and solar winds. Disrupted communications and changing magnetic fields can wreak havoc, but without knowing enough about how they work, it’s hard to predict or prevent problems. Yet the Earth and its surrounding space are at the end of those winds, kind of like being at the bottom of waterfall, as physicist Stuart Bale, from UC Berkeley (my other alma mater, what are the odds?) puts it:

The water is always flowing past us. It is very turbulent, chaotic, unstructured. And we want to know what is the source of the waterfall, what’s at the top. Is there an iceberg melting up there? Is there a sprinkler system? A lake?

Prof. Stuart Bale, UC Berkeley, quoted in NY Times

The wind is fast, spiky, and powerful. Pre-Parker models suggested that the solar wind rotates around the spinning sun at a few kilometers per second, but measurements from our new Icarus show it to be closer to 40-50 km/sec. That difference might help earth scientists predict the impact from dangerous solar outbursts. The wind was also observed to spike unexpectedly and double in speed, enough to reverse the magnetic field. Imagine a current doubling in a waterfall or reversing direction; you wouldn’t be able to see any of that if you’re at the bottom of the falls.

Solar winds
Charged particles, pretty and dangerous. Photo at Nature.com by NASA/Wiessinger.

Even with changing speeds, scientists have been able to collect data to start plotting the varying behavior. (Give a scientist some data, and she will be happy for hours.) They’re finding S-shaped curves in the field lines, blobs of plasma are at the origin of the winds, and strong influences on flow direction based on the sun’s rotation. Add to that the details around coronal holes, azimuthal velocity, Alfvenic velocity spikes, and … well … you can practically hear the drooling of the data analysts. All of this for only $1.5 billion, one-tenth the cost of an aircraft carrier.

It’s Almost 2020; Do You Know Where Your NASA Is?

The other space news this same week involved the potential discovery of the landing site for the Chandrayaan 2, a moon lander launched by India which lost contact. While details on results of the probe haven’t been shared by India, it’s widely believed that the planned soft landing crashed instead. Meanwhile, an Indian data geek, Shanmuga Subrmanian, thinks he found the crash site using NASA data. When stories mentioned that this would have been only the fourth country to soft-land, I started poking around and was surprised to find dozens of moon landings! We only think about the handful of manned Apollo mission, but the U.S., Russia, and China have all made soft i.e. controlled landings, with China being the first to land on the dark side of the moon. Other countries–India, Israel, Japan, and even French Guiana in partnership with the EU–have hard-landed probes on the surface.

Russia also successfully landed on Venus several times, while the U.S. has put landers on Mars in several places. Venus rains sulfuric acid; Mars has no atmosphere. Different kinds of perils in space for humans to solve. Still, the information collected will lead to advances that will change our life in ways we can’t predict. After all, I make daily decisions, like what route to drive to the gym or to tell a friend that I’ll be late to lunch with my phone bouncing off a satellite.

The Artemis project may be NASA’s next Big Thing. Human landings–with men and women–are projected for 2024 with planned “sustainable exploration by 2028.” That will take them next to Mars and beyond. For those who may think we should stop trying to get off the Earth and instead solve the problems that are here, I would respond that what we find there might teach us something we can use here.

What’s NASA up to? The Artemis mission may put people on the moon by 2024.

Get ready to take your protein pills and put your helmet on.

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