WHATS IN THIS BLOG:
• Eugene Parker.
• Parker model of sun’s magnetic field.
• Parker Solar Probe.
• Warning to Earth.
I worked in space science for over ten years. This blog article is Part 2 about my initial study of cosmic radiation. It was another step in my R&D career. You can read Part 1 by clicking HERE.
The following is a mix of personal history and technology in the dramatic discoveries of space science in the 1960s. My involvement was minor, but I did reach out and touch some famous personalities who influenced my career. The story concludes with some valuable life-learnings.
EUGENE PARKER. Soon after I entered graduate school at the university of Adelaide, I flew to Tasmania to a conference. I found myself sitting next to a small man from the USA, polite, rather quiet, but willing to engage in conversation. I didn’t know who he was and didn’t ask. Later that day, a colleague from the USA told me, in a tone of pure respect, that it was Eugene Parker. I was embarrassed.
The earth has a magnetic field, which deflects away the deadly cosmic rays which otherwise would annihilate the human race. It has a north pole and a south pole, which enable us to find out where we are using a magnetic compass. And it has magnetic lines of force used to show what the magnetic field looks like.
The sun also has a magnetic field. Big looping structures of magnetic field lines are visible near sunspots on the surface of the sun. But that was all we knew. Until Eugene Parker came along. At the University of Chicago in 1958, he did some heavy-lifting theory and showed that a wind was blowing away from the sun, and all the way past earth. It was stronger than any hurricane — moving at close to 300 miles per second (yes that’s per second).
The solar wind was made up of protons and electrons in a rarefied plasma. If you stood in your street clothes outside of earth’s magnetic field, you wouldn’t feel the solar wind because there are so few protons and electrons per cubic yard.
PARKER MODEL OF THE SUN’S MAGNETIC FIELD. But the theory showed the solar wind was strong enough to carry the sun’s magnetic field along with it. Yes, carry it all the way to earth and beyond. But the sun rotates like the earth does, only slower. This changes the pattern of magnetic field lines into a shape like water spraying from a rotating garden sprinkler.
It was my Ph.D. supervisor Ken McCracken’s careful analysis of galactic cosmic rays arriving at earth (from outside the solar system) that confirmed Gene Parker’s theory in 1962. Eugene Parker became famous and so did Ken McCracken.
PARKER SOLAR PROBE. Yes, this spacecraft is named after Eugene Parker and its goal is to orbit very close to the sun, to understand some major mysteries about our own star. The following are several excerpts from an article by Marcia Dunn.
• The Parker Solar Probe, a spacecraft the size of a small car, was launched on 12 August 2018 from Cape Canaveral in Florida. During the seven-year mission, it will head closer to the Sun than any other spacecraft before it.
• If all goes well, the Parker Probe will fly straight through the wispy edges of the sun’s corona, or outer atmosphere, in November 2018.
• Its instruments are protected from the extreme heat and radiation by a revolutionary new carbon heat shield. The shield is capable of withstanding 2,500 degrees F (1,370 degrees C).
• This is the first time NASA has named a spacecraft after a living person. It was the first rocket launch ever witnessed by Parker, a retired professor. He said it was like looking at photos of the Taj Mahal for years and then beholding the real thing in India.
• Among the mysteries scientists hope to solve: Why is the corona over a million degrees F and hundreds of times hotter than the surface of the sun, which is 10,000 degrees F? And why is the sun’s atmosphere continually expanding and accelerating, as Parker theorized exactly 60 years ago in 1958?
• A better understanding of the sun’s life-giving and sometimes violent nature could also enable earthlings to better protect satellites and astronauts in orbit, along with earth’s electrical power grids so vital to today’s technology-dependent society,
WARNING TO EARTH. Occasionally, a huge explosion, called a coronal mass ejection, erupts from the sun, sending a rare deluge of particles into space. In 1859, one of those explosions made a direct hit on Earth, disrupting telegraph wires in America and Europe. If the same thing happened today, it could cause continent-wide blackouts, potentially requiring months or years to repair.
PARKER NEEDED HELP.
Parker published research predicting the existence of the solar wind in 1958, when he was a young professor at the University of Chicago. At the time, astronomers believed that the space between planets was a perfect vacuum. Parker’s first paper was called ludicrous and rejected, but it was saved by a colleague, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, an astrophysicist who would later be awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize for Physics. The Chandra X-ray Observatory (a telesope that searches the universe for X-ray emissions) was named after him.
I recall that Chandrasekhar, who studied black hole stars amongst other things, was asked how he found projects to research. His answer was to pick an interesting topic, and study it fanatically, and he would always find buried in there some things that were not understood. One of those things would become his next project. I copied this approach for the rest of my R&D life.
A few years after Parker’s paper was published, his theory of solar wind was confirmed by direct measurements of protons and electrons and magnetic fields onboard satellites. His work revolutionized our understanding of the sun and interplanetary space.
A fascinating account of Parker’s discovery of the solar wind can be read HERE. The photos are marvelous too.
Parker later wrote a book about the solar wind, and I read and absorbed the book in my early years of graduate school. My work concerned how cosmic rays traveled between sun and earth, and the very first thing I learned was that they were steered by the spiral magnetic lines of force. So these solar cosmic rays must originate in solar flares on the right side of the sun, as viewed from earth. That was McCracken’s discovery.
• Chandrasekhar taught me how to uncover new research projects, by studying others’ work and identifying unexplained niches that I could work on.
• Eugene Parker came across as a humble man, in a profession where egos could be gigantic (I encountered a few of them). He was approachable. Humility is also a very Christian value.
• Parker’s success and McCracken’s success were inspiring to me, a young graduate student eager to be trained in research and to discover or develop something new in science. They were bright shining lights.
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