A thrilling mission to the sun that has no precedent

Letter to the editor
Letter to the editor

The Nasa solar probe mission is another exciting step forward in human and scientific history.

The sun, as all school children are taught, is 93 million miles away from us.

Even in Northern Ireland, typically one of the coolest places in Europe in July and August, the sun’s powerful rays have been evident this summer. For several days during the recent heatwave, the temperature in the Province reached more than 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit).

You only need to imagine travelling a mere million miles closer to the sun than we are now to think what a feat it is to send a probe to within 3.8 million miles of its edge.

If this thrillingly ambitious project is successful, the Parker Solar Probe will withstand temperatures of 1,800 C (3,300F). Building a device that can operate in such heat is an astonishing technical feat, let alone one that can travel such a complicated journey.

There was a moving element to Saturday’s launch of the probe from Cape Canaveral in Florida: the astrophysicist after whom it was named, Eugene Parker.

Professor Parker is 91 and was born in the 1920s, and was an adult by the end of the Second World War. The scientific progress that he has both witnessed and helped propel is a remarkable human story.

The voyage also shows how little man has explored the Earth’s surroundings. Our solar system is vastly bigger than the distance between us and the sun, at 7 billion miles across.

And it, with our sun at its heart, is only one of billions of stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way.

And our galaxy is one of perhaps 100 billion galaxies.

There are, in other words, millions of trillions of suns like ours, an almost unimaginable number.

In those inter-galactic terms, this stunning mission is negligible. But in the history of the Earth it is without precedent, and only possible because of the hard and painstaking and decades long work of brilliant men and women.