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How NASA’s mission to “touch the sun” could make us safer on Earth

On August 12, 2018, NASA's Parker Solar Probe launched into space on a mission to unveil some of the greatest mysteries surrounding our sun.

The probe features a 10 square meter heat shield made from carbon foam that can withstand up to 3,000 degrees without incinerating. The front of the probe is covered in a synthetic sapphire crystal that reflects around six megawatts of sunlight; enough energy to power a small village.

Image of Justin Kasper, lead investigator for NASA's Parker Solar Probe.
Credit Lindsey Scullen
Justin Kasper is the lead investigator for NASA's Parker Solar Probe.

Justin Kasper is a lead investigator on the project. He joined Stateside at our recent Ann Arbor live show to talk about what he hopes to learn from the information collected by the probe.

Kasper says that scientists have long wondered why the atmosphere above the sun’s surface rises in temperature rather than cooling off. The temperature of the sun’s extended atmosphere, called the “corona,” can range from one to ten million degrees.

“I’m mystified that something can heat material up to millions of degrees. We think it has something to do with magnetic fields and waves near the sun. If we could understand why the sun’s atmosphere has such an easy time doing that, maybe we could figure out how to do controlled fusion, the ultimate clean energy source,” Kasper said.

In addition to getting scientists closer to cracking the code on nuclear fusion, Kasper says that the probe’s findings could have another practical benefit to human society.

Every so often, the solar atmosphere emits “coronal mass ejections." Sometimes, the Earth gets in the way of these ejections, a memorable example of which occurred in the 1850s. As a result of that ejection, telegraph lines were down for days, compasses were rendered inaccurate, and the Northern Lights could be seen all the way down to the Caribbean.

Although coronal mass ejections that so drastically affect the Earth are rare, Kasper says studies conducted by agencies like FEMA suggest that if one were to occur now, "we could lose every transformer on the East and West Coast and not have electrical power for a few years."

Kasper hopes that the information collected by the probe could better prepare us for that possibility.

“What we’re trying to do is figure out how to build a predictive model. The same way people are getting better at saying, ‘This hurricane might make landfall, maybe in this area,' if we could say ‘This eruption is heading toward us, we should probably power down the electrical grid,’ we could avoid a real disaster,” Kasper explained.

Listen to Stateside’s conversation with Kasper to find out more about the mechanics of the Parker Solar Probe and what drew him to the world of space science. 

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas. 

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