Commentary: Solar probe extends quest to answer, ‘Why?’

The Parker Solar Probe, launched Sunday, could help answer intriguing questions about our star.

By The Columbian Editorial Board

A team at NASA is reaching for the stars. Literally.

Sunday, the unmanned Parker Solar Probe was launched toward the sun, beginning a journey of 90 million miles with the intent of providing answers about the celestial body that is so essential to life on this planet. The probe will reach Venus in six weeks. After using the gravity of Venus to gently slow its acceleration, it will, as Space.com explains, “begin its calculated dance with the sun.” The first of 24 planned orbits is expected to begin Nov. 1, but it will be seven years before the Parker Solar Probe makes its closest pass by the sun, coming within 4 million miles.

All of this can be difficult to comprehend, especially for those of us who can barely work the TV remote. But the incredible journey satiates an unquenchable human desire to explore and investigate the universe around us. As British physicist Stephen Hawking once said, “We explore because we are human and we want to know.” Or, as mountaineer George Mallory famously said when asked why he wanted to scale Mount Everest, “Because it’s there.”

The sun has been there, as a part of human consciousness, from the moment life existed on this planet. And yet it remains a source of mystery that serves as motivation for the launch of the Parker Space Probe.

Among the questions is one that has baffled physicists for decades: Why is the sun’s atmosphere — the corona — so much hotter than its surface? People who know about such things say the surface of the sun is around 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, while its atmosphere is about 2 million degrees — 200 times hotter. As Brian Resnick wrote last week for Vox.com: “It’s like if an airplane took off from ground level where it was 60 degrees F, and then reached a cruising altitude where it was 12,000 degrees F. It sounds preposterous. And the plane would melt.”

For the probe to avoid being incinerated in that atmosphere, its carbon heat shield must remain pointed toward the sun. For those of us who can barely operate a barbecue grill, this might seem like a daunting task.

Scientists also hope to find some answers — or at least some clues — about the mysteries of solar wind and coronal mass ejections. The ejections are sudden explosions of plasma and particles from the sun that are unpredictable and are so powerful they can knock out power grids on Earth.

As Nour Raouafi, who is serving as deputy project scientist, said: “The Parker Solar Probe will help us understand all the scientific questions that have been puzzling us for decades. But it also has the potential to really rewrite the future of solar and heliophysics by making big discoveries of phenomena we know nothing about now.”

Those phenomena have inspired humans throughout recorded history. Until 1783, when the first hot-air balloon left the ground, humans were earthbound. Since then, we have persistently tested the limits of our ingenuity and bravery, stretching the reach of humanity to the troposphere then the stratosphere then outer space. On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy famously encouraged Congress to fund a program to land a person on the moon and return them safely to Earth. What is less known is that Kennedy added “and perhaps to the very end of the solar system.”

Now, that desire for exploration is leading us toward the center of the solar system, toward the star that keeps our planet alive.

The above editorial appeared Aug. 15 in The Columbian.

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