Friday, March 20, 2009

Walking on the Sun... Almost

Today NASA and ESA (the European Space Agency) announced that they are sending a probe to the sun. And to generate excitement they've made a PRESS RELEASE!!!!!, complete with an actual photo taken by a photographer who went along for the ride in the future and then sent his phot back via time travel. Go NASA/ESA!

In some ways it's amazing that humanity has never before sent a mission to the dominant object in our solar system, but on the other hand the sun isn't exactly hard to observe from, say, your window. In many ways the sun actually gets harder to observe the closer you get to it because (a) it's big and (b) it's really hot. However in as little as 5 years, there may be a nice little man-made box orbiting the sun inside the orbit of Mercury. This bold but lonely piece of hardware has been named SOLO (SOLar Orbiter).

So what's the big deal about going to the sun? We can see it quite well from our safe orbit here on Earth, we can probe its interior with helioseismology, and we can even sample it because it's constantly spitting plasma at us in the solar wind. Well it turns out that one of the big reasons to go to the sun is that we really only see part of the sun. We have good observations for only a band around the solar equator extending to about 60 degrees north and south. On the Earth that would mean we miss the poles and as a friend who visited the South Pole Telescope will tell you, the poles are very, very different places than the rest of the planet. In addition our simulations of the solar interior seem to indicate that the polar regions on the sun may exhibit different convective patterns. So I say go to the sun and step on it.

1 comment:

  1. I am all for sending a probe to the sun for this important reason:

    Our sun is the only star we can study up close. Furthermore, the sun is similar enough to the majority of stars in the universe that whatever we learn about the sun will tell us a lot about the other stars.

    Stars are very important is understanding the cosmos. I can't even begin to list all the reasons stars are a an important part of the universe, and our sun is in our own back yard. By studying it we will learn a lot of important information which will be crucial for understanding the basics of the universe.


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