Have you ever wondered how close can we get to the sun? Over millennia many have, perhaps even in prehistory before modern man.
The insatiable curiosity of humans has brought us closer and closer to the Sun, the star at the center of our solar system.
No one has ever managed to visit the sun, but can it ever change in the future?
Really, how close can you get to the sun? Well, the answer may be a bit disappointing for those wishing to get close to the sun.
With all the latest technology, humans could only travel up to 3 million miles from the sun.
Getting to Know the Sun Better
In addition to being the master regulator of Earth’s habitability, our sun provides a unique window into the complexities of our local galaxy.
Besides providing the light and heat necessary for life on Earth, this cosmic behemoth (which accounts for more than 99.8 percent of the solar system’s mass) also shows the captivating dance of plasma.
Moreover, a fusion of hydrogen atoms within its core creates helium, one of the fundamental building blocks of the universe.
Sunspots and auroras, both products of the Sun’s tumultuous surface, are awe-inspiring phenomena that give the night sky its otherworldly hues.
The Idea of Getting Close to the Sun
The Sun is our closest star at about 93 million miles away. Not really that close to Earth.
Approaching it wouldn’t be easy even though our local star is nothing more than a giant ball of superheated gases held together by magnetism and gravity.
These forces push away solar material so as well as being immensely hot, there are strong solar winds and intense radiation to deal with.
Given the distance and the dangers, why would anyone want to visit?
Apart from indulging human curiosity, scientists are looking to the Sun to better understand the influence of solar winds on our planet.
Fact: Traveling to the Sun requires a lot of energy; in fact, it takes 55 times more than traveling to Mars.
How Close Can We Get to the Sun?
While the Sun’s searing heat and powerful radiation pose serious threats to spacecraft, modern ingenuity has allowed humanity to get closer than ever before to its blazing embrace.
We still haven’t visited, but theoretically, a man in a spacesuit could get within 3 million miles before frying and a heat-resistant space probe a little bit nearer.
Historical Attempts at Approaching the Sun
We all know of Icarus, who attempted to reach the Sun using wings held together with wax.
But since ancient times entire civilizations have been obsessed with the Sun, for example, the Inca and Nabateans.
The Role of Technology
With technology, modern man is realizing his sun obsession by touching its star in 2021.
Records of sunspots go back to 28 BC, the earliest reports of solar activity we have. They were written by ancient Chinese astronomers.
The arrival of telescopes around 1610 made systematic observation of sunspots possible.
Although Galileo’s observations of blemishes on the Sun met with opposition and accusations of heresy against God’s perfect creation.
Still, observations continued and even the very earliest contain data that has value for science today.
For instance, we know that from 1645 the sunspot counts trended low for the next 70 years coinciding with the climate cooling and a cooler period dubbed ‘The Little Ice Age’.
Fact: Everything that leaves Earth initially travels at the same speed and in the same direction as the planet itself, around 67,000 miles per hour in a sideways trajectory.
Having a Physical Presence in Space
With better telescopes we can see further and further back in time in efforts to discover our origins and understand how our universe began.
As technology developed, mankind could finally have a physical presence in space by visiting the moon.
At present, there is little need for man to go further.
With advances in heat resistant materials, propulsion, AI robotics and sensors, mankind’s exploration of space is virtual.
We have a host of technology monitoring the Sun with many organizations interested in the data including the Space Weather Prediction Center, NASA and SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) and the ESA.
Current Spacecraft and Missions to the Sun
Scientists have always been looking for ways to get closer and closer to the sun to learn more about this mysterious star.
And that is the reason why you can now find thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth and also targeting the sun.
Satellites Orbiting the Sun
Most people are unaware of just how many satellites orbit the Earth.
There are over 8000 although many are inactive and many are used for navigation and communication.
Those on halophytic missions to study the Sun and the solar winds are part of a fleet acting as one giant observatory.
More about Parker Solar Probe
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is one of this fleet and is in the closest orbit of the sun we have made so far, within 3.8 million miles.
Close enough to be inside the corona.
Scientists have observed its progress through 14 orbits and were unsure what would happen.
This is territory unknown but the data is invaluable and quite unlike any science can get by studying from Earth.
It could help us survive climate change.
More about Solar Orbiter
Another spacecraft is the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Solar Orbiter.
It is loaded with sensors seeking answers to how solar winds are created, what accelerates them, and what drives the Sun’s magnetic cycle.
The Solar Orbiter came within 25 million miles and gave us the closest images we have of the Sun’s surface and poles.
More importantly, it gathered data on solar winds and using measurements of its composition, it pinpointed its origins on Sun.
Fact: Parker Solar Probe, in its final, closest orbit to the Sun, will travel at speeds of up to 430,000 miles per hour.
Technological Advances for Proximity to the Sun
In recent years, many new innovative technologies have made it possible for scientists to get close to the sun, but there are so many challenges to overcome.
Factors Affecting the Probe Getting Close to the Sun
The threat of climate change grows clear.
It is arguably one of the greatest concerns for scientists collecting data to study how changes in solar activity are likely to affect us.
But, it also has an impact on how long a probe can continue traveling and sending back data once it is in orbit so perilously close to the sun.
Whilst developing the capabilities of sensors, science has also had to look for efficient ways to protect their probes from the onslaught of high energy particles that make up the solar wind.
The Capabilities of the Parker Solar Probe and Orbiter
To achieve adequate propulsion, the materials used to build a probe need to be super lightweight and highly durable.
The Parker Solar Probe is quite impressive in this regard. It is about the size of a small car.
But it needs to withstand the heat for 21 orbits before it is hoped it will stabilize at some 4 million miles from the center of the Sun.
Its heat shield is a 4.5-inch carbon composite layered around foam. On the other hand, the Orbiter is designed to face the Sun full-on.
Its heat shield was specifically designed to protect its delicate apparatus from the high levels of flux found in increasing amounts closer to the Sun.
How Do These Probes Work to Get Close to the Sun?
Both probes use solar energy collected by panels and sails to power their internal systems, such as their radio-based communications.
Orbiter has a high-temperature, high-gain antenna.
The Parker Solar Probe uses a hypergolic propellant, High Purity Hydrazine, that reacts with just about everything.
But, the Orbiter makes use of gravity assists provided by Venus and Earth to bring it into its 180-day solar orbit.
The Need to Get Closer to the Sun
Scientists keep trying getting close to the sun in order to learn how the space weather and the activity of the sun would affect the climate on earth.
The hope is to be able to recognize when solar conditions warn of storms and so minimize disruption to satellite and communication systems on Earth.
Fact: The next steps for solar exploration are underway with the ESA’s Solaris project which will explore the feasibility of delivering clean energy using space-based solar power.
How close can we get to the sun? With all the latest technology, gear, and equipment, humans could only fly within 3 million miles of the sun.
As far as solar exploration is concerned, after centuries of observation, we are only just getting started.
Humanity may have touched the sun, but we have a long way to go before fully understanding how the sun’s activity and the space weather it creates will affect warming more vulnerable planet.