Those who can remember a half century back will recall these words, spoken by Captain James Kirk of the starship Enterprise at the beginning of each episode of Star Trek:
“Space—the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission—to explore strange new worlds—to seek out new life and new civilizations—to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Although the original series lasted only three years and 79 episodes, it spawned follow-on series and has become a cult classic.
But this essay is not about classic science fiction, the starship Enterprise, or Captain Kirk. Yet it is about science that has some of the elements of science fiction. It is about a starship going where no man has gone before. And it is about Captain Kirk, played by Canadian actor William Shatner. Yes, Shatner is still alive at almost 88 and promoting the latest NASA spacecraft mission to touch a star.
That star is our Sun and the mission is called the “Parker Solar Probe.” At the size of a small automobile, the unmanned probe is hardly a giant starship. But it will have to endure heat and radiation greater than any encountered by the Enterprise. Although hardly traveling at “warp speed,” it will reach almost half a million miles per hour as it swings around the Sun in flybys that get ever deeper into the solar corona. That is where the Sun accelerates the ‘solar wind’ to supersonic speed and embeds intense solar magnetic fields into a giant spiral that sweeps galactic cosmic rays out of the solar system.
As this ‘solar wind’ blows past the earth, it compresses the Earth’s magnetic field on the day side and blows it far out behind the Earth on the night side. The ‘geomagnetic tail’ allows cosmic rays to reach high latitudes and produce magnificent auroras. Those same cosmic rays constitute a hazard to high flying passenger aircraft, such that airlines sometimes divert their planes from polar routes. Cosmic rays also have a climate connection, which we will get to below.
This story begins before man ever rocketed out of the Earth’s atmosphere, before Sputnik, and before NASA. A young theoretical astrophysicist by the name of Eugene Parker, who had just received his PhD from the California Institute of Technology, came up with fantastic ideas about the Earth traveling, not in the vacuum of space, but in the Sun’s far outer atmosphere that was blowing past the earth at a million miles per hour. His ideas were too fantastic for the astrophysicists of his day. Those who “peer-reviewed” the scientific paper he submitted to the Astrophysical Journal rejected it.
In today’s pseudo-science world, that would mean that Parker was wrong. But the editor of the journal, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, recognized the value in Parker’s theories, overrode the referees, and published Parker’s paper anyway. Both men went onto distinguished careers in theoretical physics, Chandra winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1983 and Parker receiving many awards. Their fame was based on the foundations of science, namely sturdy logic and robust evidence, not on mere acceptance by their peers, as is promoted today.
When United States spacecraft finally reached beyond the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetosphere, they found the solar wind, exactly as Eugene Parker had originally described it.
I was fortunate to count both men among my professors at the University of Chicago, when I was a graduate student in the 1970s. They had offices just down the hall from me in the Laboratory for Astrophysics and Space Research. Parker was especially helpful, when I had questions about his work. My thesis built on his original ideas about the solar modulation of galactic cosmic rays.
Fast forward to today, and we find Eugene Parker still alive at almost 92 and wondering what the spacecraft named in his honor will discover about the origins of the solar wind. It will fly through the region where the wind is accelerated from subsonic to supersonic and where the highest energy solar particles are accelerated. Parker is now the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus, Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago.
To touch the Sun and look at the processes going on there requires not only sophisticated rocketry but special designs and materials to withstand the fierce heat and radiation. For instance, the spacecraft will be protected by a 4.5 inch thick carbon-composite shield that will withstand temperatures reaching 2500 degrees Fahrenheit, when it comes within 3.8 million miles of the surface of the Sun, at closest approach. That is only five solar diameters.
To get there with limited fuel, the starship uses gravity assists from the planet Venus. It will make 24 orbits of the Sun, with Venus providing a boost to get in closer to the Sun on 7 flybys. That means that the mission will cover about four billion miles over seven years.
This is pure science.
Although billed as way to better understand the threats we face from massive solar flares that can damage power grids and delicate electronics here on Earth, this is really pure science that needs no justification beyond the fact that it will answer many questions about how our star works. And it will probably raise as many questions as it answers. While we like to think that we already understand a lot about the Sun, that is substantially incorrect.
Pure science missions are a universe beyond pseudo-science such as Global Warming, where we frequently waste vast sums of money. Pure science missions have no “correct answer” as do most of the efforts to prove that humans are altering the weather and climate. That’s a ‘fool’s errand’ lavishly funded by politicians who thought that science was boring when in high school, but now realize that it can be manipulated for selfish ends.
In contrast, the earthly rewards from pure science can be quite unexpected and profound. Danish physicist Henrik Svensmark has proposed that the solar modulation of galactic cosmic rays that I studied and that Professor Parker explained may be an important element in altering the Earth’s climate. We know that the Sun is implicated in climate changes, even though solar output varies only slightly over 11-year solar cycles and only slightly more over much longer cycles.
The Maunder Minimum of sunspots in the 1600s was an especially cold period, as was the Dalton Minimum in the early 1800s. One possible amplification factor could be cosmic rays striking the upper atmosphere, producing clouds, and thereby reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface. When the Sun is active, the solar wind with its embedded magnetic fields keeps many galactic cosmic rays from reaching the inner solar system where we live. That means we have fewer clouds and warmer conditions. But now that solar activity is falling off dramatically, we are seeing more galactic cosmic rays, and possibly more clouds and a cooler planet.
It is, however, just a theory, because we do not have a firm understanding of the magnitude of the effect versus many other climate effects. When Svensmark tried to publish his ideas, he was blocked by the Climate Cartel that routinely blocks publication of any ideas that might conflict with the carbon dioxide paradigm. That brought a strong rebuke from Professor Parker, who was himself the victim of narrow-minded peer-reviewers a half century earlier.
Would you like to go along for a very long ride?
This is where Captain Kirk comes in. He is offering a chance for the trip of a lifetime on a starship. Of course, they will only have room to take along your name, but they are offering to do it for free. Just sign up here by April 27th: http://parkersolarprobe.jhuapl.edu and they will load your name (along with mine) to be carried aboard on a memory card. You will get your “Hot Ticket” by return email from John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
There is no downside, except that this is a one-way trip. Our names will forever circle the Sun and Venus, until the spacecraft eventually burns up on a close approach to the Sun.
Gordon J. Fulks lives in Corbett and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He holds a doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago’s Laboratory for Astrophysics and Space Research.
(Unless otherwise noted, the opinions expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Northwest Connection)