ALCALA DE HENARES--Space, the final frontier. Mankind has had a love-hate-fear of "what's out there" from the beginning. The irresistibility of this unknown has driven space-based innovation for more than half a century, continuing through times of social, economic and political unrest. With climate change and thinning atmospheres, our other-world obsession is now focused on our beloved star, Helios, the sun.
Isabel and Ferdinand may have demanded that the sun revolved around the Earth, but it's actually the Spanish who are leading the closest trip to the sun. The University of Alcala is organizing the building of the Solar Orbiter. This Smart Car-sized box will leave the planet in 2017, gravity slingshot a couple times around Earth and Venus, and then swing toward the sun's atmosphere, roughly approaching the orbit of Mercury. The Solar Orbiter will take three to four years to travel 0.8 astronomical units--about 119 million kilometers, or three-quarters of the Earth´s distance to the sun--to gather the most accurate information yet on our brightest and enigmatic star.
Why the sun? Why is the European Space Agency dropping nearly 500 million euros in the midst of a recession, borderline depression? To save the world, of course! "The sun is the main driver of our climate," says Javier Rodriguez-Pacheco, who is in charge of the project that brings together researchers, scientists and engineers from Spain, Finland, Germany, South Korea and the U.S. "One percent more or less radiation would produce a catastrophic change," like an ice age, he says. This mission could lead us to finally beginning to understand the sun and providing us with evidence on which to base theories like global warming and its causes.
The Space Orbiter is a mere two-meter cube, operated mainly by maneuverable, temperature-reacting solar panels that flank it like wings. It includes remote-sensing instruments to take the most-detailed-ever photos and films of the sun, along with the Insitu, which will collect particles surrounding the Orbiter as it travels. This is the first time getting anywhere near this close to the sun has been possible, due to advances in heat shield and temperature technology.
The Orbiter is a giant leap for mankind toward explaining how the sun works and how climate change is caused, particularly by greenhouse gases. "We don't know exactly how the sun works. For that, we have to go there, take pictures close (to it) and to take pictures and samples from the poles," Pacheco says. Then, "we can really make an improvement on the theoretical model, and be able to produce a forecast of the activity of the sun for the years to come."
In 2008, the U.S. Congress passed an order to create an assessment of the real danger of increasingly regular and explosive solar storms, which, according to Pacheco, cause "increased radiation, damaged satellites, (and) endangers those in the space station." He says these storms give off the same particles and high radiation levels as inside a nuclear power plant, particularly near to the poles, Earth´s strongest magnetic fields. The Earth has natural protections against this radiation, including its atmosphere, but "we aren't protected from the electrical currents, charging movements. They can damage the generators and the electrical power plants, like in Canada (and) the north of the U.S.," which are closest to the north pole. Pacheco says, "If we lose all these power plants, it could be much more catastrophic than the (Hurricane) Katrina disaster."
Of course, besides saving life as we know it, there will likely be more tangible benefits for the everyman. NASA and the ESA feature some of the most important innovators in the world, with thousands of patents that affect the average consumer's life. From your Tempurpedic mattress to your Invisilines to your Brita water filter, many every day items originate from space research. Pacheco advocates for continued space spending--no matter what the economic situation--because it "involves technology development, technology that will be available for the rest of the world some years after." While Spain isn't exactly known for its astronauts or aeronautical research, this outside-the-box--or even out-of-this-world--investigation is the direction Spain needs to be heading. The research done at one of the oldest universities in the world could lead to inventions and products that could change Spain from an import-based, service economy to one that markets and exports its products, research and technology abroad.
As Pacheco says, "Research, design and innovation has to be one of the pillars of the Spanish economy."
Video/Screenshots: European Space Agency