Space News: Our Brilliant Ball of Blazing Gas

By Tyler DeWacht


Greetings once again! The Sun keeps us all alive, generously providing us with the required light and heat for survival. None of this would’ve been possible without our resident star, but how much do we truly know about the center of our world? Today in Space News, we’re going to look at the brilliant ball of blazing gas that is the Sun!


By the way, this should be obvious, but do not take that statement literally. Unless you have specialized equipment (specialized solar filters or, at bare minimum, a welding mask with a Shade 12-14 rating), do not look directly at the Sun under any circumstances, especially during a solar eclipse. Even a brief glimpse can permanently damage your eyesight. You should be old enough to know this by now, but this point is absolutely crucial, and I am not in any way responsible for any personal injuries you incur as a result of looking directly at the Sun.


With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get back into the news. On the subject of eclipses, when will the next major eclipses hit Edmonton? On October 14, 2023, a total solar eclipse will pass through the Western United States and keep going down into Central Brazil. While we’re not in the direct path of this eclipse, we are still predicted to be in position for a partial solar eclipse with a coverage of at least 50%. If you’re willing to wait until August 23, 2044, Alberta will then be directly in the crosshairs of a total solar eclipse. Of course, you’ll likely have forgotten about this article long before that day actually arrives, but it’s still something to look forward to. If you’re more into total lunar eclipses, then you’re in for a treat, because then the next predicted one arrives on January 20, 2019, only 4 months from now!


Do you know what Vulcanoids are? Well, neither does anyone else, but we know what they might be. A planet named Vulcan (appropriately named after the Roman god of fire) was once thought to exist between Mercury and the Sun, but that was later disproved by Einstein’s theory of general relativity. However, the idea that there may still be asteroids in that area persists as the Vulcanoids. If they do exist, they’d be relatively untouched by space debris, and we could use this to get a better idea of the early Solar System’s composition. Given how small they’d have to be and the close proximity to the Sun, they’d be almost impossible to find with what we have in position right now. It’s hard enough to see Mercury, we’d have next to no hope of finding a tiny asteroid.


However, an ongoing mission will soon give us our best chance yet of finding one. The Helios 2 mission in 1976 got within 43.5 million kilometres of the Sun, but this ambitious mission aims to get as close as 6 million kilometres. What I’m talking about is the Parker Solar Probe. Named after the scientist who coined the term “solar flare,” this new probe will use the gravity of Venus to gradually shrink its orbit around the Sun until it hits the target perihelion distance, and this fly-by will be done 7 times. The first Venus fly-by is expected to occur on October 3, about 2½ weeks from now. The main goal of this mission is to examine the outer layers of the Sun, watching the solar winds and tracing the movement of heat and energy. The mission is slated to end after 24 orbits, but NASA will likely attempt to keep it going as long as possible, as they have done with previous missions such as with the Opportunity rover. Eventually, it will most likely fall into the Sun and disintegrate, but it will be dead and fried long before that point.


The Sun is extremely hot, reaching temperatures upwards of 6,000°C inside the photosphere. While the targeted corona region is cooler on average at 1,377°C, solar flares can shoot it straight upwards of 1,000,000°C. With temperatures like that, how is the Parker Solar Probe supposed to survive? Assuming the extreme scenario of a large solar flare doesn’t occur, the equipment inside is protected by an 11.43 cm carbon-composite shield that can hold (at least for a while) even against the melting point of steel. It also helps that it will only be staying in the area for a short time until the orbit takes it out again. At peak speed, it will be moving at over 700,000 km/h, which will make it the most fast-moving spacecraft humanity has ever created.


We have only 1 star in our Solar System, but could there ever have been another in our vicinity? A study led by Suzanne Pfalzner of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy hypothesizes that a rogue star passed by and messed up the orbits of the objects past Neptune. It could explain why our favorite dwarf planet Pluto has such a tilted orbit in comparison to everything else and why Sedna’s orbit is so eccentric. Some computer simulations have also supported this conclusion. It could also be due to the mysterious Planet 9, but that’s a matter for another article. Either way, a solid answer won’t be easy to find.


Lastly, back here on Earth, a new kind of solar panel was developed in Australia, and it’s relatively cheap to produce. All you really need to make them is a special kind of ink, thin plastic sheets, and a conventional printer. It’s light, it costs less than $10 per square meter, and it can be quickly applied. It’s still in the trial period, but this new technological development could make it easier for everyone to get an affordable source of sustainable energy.


That’s all the current news available regarding the Sun, hopefully giving you a greater sense of enlightenment on the matter. In the next edition of Space News, we go from the center of our survival to the far ends of our little bubble of influence. Keep gazing at the cosmos, but as previously cautioned, do it safely!

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