Knocking on the sun’s door

Ahmed Al-Moslemany
Monday 2 Sep 2019

Do you remember Carl Sagan? He is the late American astronomer famous for popularising science. 

Sagan appeared to be a very good-natured man. However, not all that glitters is gold. Behind this scientist and writer's smile there was a "criminal scientist" who was about to end life on earth one day.

In 2012 a thrilling story unravelled. In 1957, the USSR had beaten the US to launching the first satellite and landing a spacecraft on the moon. The USSR progress scared the US, pushing it to work harder to surpass their competitor’s scientific development.

It was not presidents, governments or peoples leading the world during the Cold War. It was science. The space and arms races became the landmarks of the new world.

US scientists decided to respond to the USSR by bombing the moon with nuclear weapons. According to The Independent and The Guardian, the calculations of detonating a nuclear bomb on the moon were determined by the newly graduated astronomer Carl Sagan. Physicist Leonard Reiffel, at the forefront of the project, said the aim of the proposed detonation at a distance of more than 400,000km away from earth was to make a mushroom cloud so big it would be visible to the Soviets. Thus, the US’ one-upmanship would be established, putting an end to the power race once and for all.

A number of scientists stepped in and cancelled the project which remained a secret for more than 40 years until it was published a few years ago. During that time, fate saved the earth; nuclear wars were about to break out several times, at instances by sheer accident.

One of the more exciting stories was what may have happened in the summer of 1967. In May 1967, at the height of the Cold War, the US radar system assigned to monitor Soviet missiles was jammed. Shortly after, three US radars on the North Pole ceased monitoring. The US president was informed and the assessment was that jamming the US radars was a preliminary signal to an imminent Soviet nuclear strike against the US. The final decision was to be ready to hit Moscow with nuclear bombs.

After the US Air Force prepared to launch nuclear bombs, a report from the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) explained that a solar explosion occurred, leading to a severe magnetic storm that resulted in disabling the entire world’s electronic devices.

Since this incident, the two superpowers' interest heightened in what was happening on the sun, and solar studies witnessed huge progress in the following years.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched Voyager 1 and 2 in different directions. Now Voyager 1 has reached beyond the sun, floating between the sun and other stars of the galaxy. When the Voyagers’ messages to earth stop in 2030 their movement won't.

The Voyagers carry golden discs on which are recorded human voices speaking in several languages and data about planet Earth and its human inhabitants, the aim being to establish communication with any sentient beings that may receive these discs one day.

The event represented a major scientific milestone. It is a milestone that isn’t less important than the first human circumnavigation of Earth or the first landing on the moon. An astrophysicist told the BBC going beyond the sun and travelling in the infinite deep space was like Voyager 1 went through the sun’s gate and arrived at eternity's door.

The expression of “eternity” is a metaphor for the expansion of movement in both space and time and going beyond what was once impossible. However, nothing is eternal. One day everything will end.

If the Voyager 1 has gone beyond the sun, the Parker Solar Probe’s mission is to reach the sun itself.

In 2018 NASA launched the Parker Probe, named after the astrophysicist Eugene Parker, who in the 1950s developed the theory of supersonic solar wind. Parker is the fastest manmade craft. It can travel from Cairo to Alexandria in less than a second.

In 1976 the Probe Helios 2 reached the closest point to the sun at 43.5 million km, which is a close distance, knowing that the distance between the earth and the sun is approximately 150 million km. But the astonishing scientific progress made the dream of reaching the sun possible.

Parker, which is coming closer to the sun more than any other manmade craft, aims at probing the outer corona of the sun, the temperature of which exceeds that of the sun’s surface by 300 times — in itself a mystery.

In April 2019, Parker was at 24 million km from the sun’s surface. In 2021 it will reach the sun’s corona, and in 2024 it will be at just six million km from the sun’s surface. According to a scientist working at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory: If the distance between earth and the sun is one metre, then we are centimetres away from the sun’s surface… “We’ve studied the sun for decades and now we're finally going to go where the action is.”

On earth, some were trying to recreate the sun. The German Aerospace Centre constructed the world’s largest artificial sun. During this experiment the strongest artificial light in the world, the equivalent of 10,000 times the intensity of natural sunlight on earth, was switched on. In China, the Institute of Plasma Physics in the Chinese Academy of Sciences conducted an experiment for generating the plasma which the sun is made of.

Solar explosions were about to cause nuclear wars at times. However, space science drives humanity to look upward.


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