The sun is the central point of our solar system, and yet we are only just beginning to understand how it works. We know some things, of course. We know about sunspots and sun cycles, but we are now seeing new features that will keep scientists working for years to come.
This year, there is a happy alignment of resources that will help us in the quest to learn more about the sun. The Parker Solar Probe, run by NASA and the Solar Orbiter, run by the ESA will be studying the sun simultaneously but from different angles.
The Parker Solar Probe is briefed to fly as close as possible (ultimately the equivalent of a hair’s breadth) to the sun to understand its nature. Already, 43 million kilometres away, the probe has experienced solar winds travelling at more the 1,400 kilometres a second.
The Solar Orbiter, in contrast, will be studying the sun from rather different angles – both poles, which have never been seen or studied before.
This is particularly important as the sun has been in a quiet period for some years now and is just beginning to speed up its activity, to reach its maximum in about 11 years from now. One important event that scientists are waiting for is the moment when the magnetic poles on the sun flip.
As yet, there are only theories as to why this might happen, but you get the feeling that reversing a magnetic field, with that much energy, will be worth studying.
There are several reasons to study the sun closely.
First, obviously, it is supporting our lives and our planet.
Second, we need to understand how worried we need to be about future electromagnetic storms and their impact on our increasingly sophisticated communications infrastructure.
Third, as we increasingly concentrate our thoughts on space travel and getting outside our solar system, is there some way that we can harness the sun and its enormous energy to help us on our way. Or emulate it.
Here on Earth, we are now building devices with extraordinary energy. One such, based on a small fusion device, is called a ‘spacetime modification weapon’ built by a unit of the US Navy because they discovered that the Chinese might be doing something similar.
According to the article, ‘it makes a hydrogen bomb look like a firecracker,’ or ‘imagine the power of the sun confined in a relatively small, compact, space.’
If we can build such powerful devices, it makes sense to get a better understanding of the sun and its workings (thermal and magnetic), because if we can truly harness that amount of power, who knows where we could end up.
And we should hurry, others may well be investigating (or refuelling) already.