Staring at the Sun, Looking for Answers and Awe

Jun 28, 2013

Image of 2008 eclipse showing the solar corona. Red and green lines show ionized iron being emitted into the solar atmosphere.
Image of 2008 eclipse showing the solar corona. Red and green lines show ionized iron being emitted into the solar atmosphere.
Credit NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center - flickr

The Aspen Ideas Fest kicked off its second day of heady talks and colloquia on Thursday. Attendees and speakers from all over gathered to discuss the most pressing issues of culture, media, and foreign policy facing us here on earth. But others were turning their backs, literally, on our planet to get a different viewpoint. Science reporter Ellis Robinson explains.

Amidst the hustle and bustle from pavilion to auditorium, a small crowd gathered in a field on the campus of the Aspen Institute. They paused, craned back their necks, and did something we've been told not to do from a young age: they stared directly at the sun. Don't try this at home.

Luckily, Frank Nadell and Doug Dolgino from the Three Rivers Astronomy club of Carbondale were there with special telescopes that not only let you look at the sun without damaging your eyes, but allow the viewer to see wild action on its surface. Ideas Fest volunteer Jay Humphries explains:

"You can actually see the gases on the surface of the sun churning and boiling, and you can see the filaments that are coming out of the sun and the plasma. It is awesome. Ah, it's so cool!"

Humphries isn't the only person here at the Ideas Fest fascinated by the vigorous activity of the sun's surface.

"The surface of the sun is really dynamic. The whole sun is kind of expanding in and out every five minutes or so by a couple hundred miles."

Justin Kasper is a scientist with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. His presentation earlier in the day was about his dream to explore the sun’s atmosphere, known as the Corona.

"Let's send a probe to the sun and figure out why the corona is being heated, why you have these solar winds, why there's solar activity."

A long-standing question in astronomy is why the solar atmosphere, extending millions of miles into space, is so much hotter than the visible surface of the sun? The corona can be millions of degrees hotter than the sun's surface, which, by comparison, is a downright chilly 6000 degrees. Kasper says it is unintuitive that as you get far away from an object that the temperature would suddenly start rising instead of falling.  

The astrophysicist leads a multi-institution collaboration with NASA that hopes to build a space probe that would travel into the solar atmosphere to take measurements, and hopefully provide some answers.

"We're about five years out from launch, and this coming winter we're going to stand up and we're going to say ‘here's our design, here's our prototype.’ If all goes well NASA's going to say, ‘alright, you've got four years now, go build this and launch it.’"

By July 2018, the target for launch Kasper hopes, the solar probe will blast off towards Venus.  The plan is for the probe to skim within a 100 km of that planet’s surface and then, using Venus’ gravitational pull, boomerang around towards the solar atmosphere.

Back on earth at the Aspen Institute, Farai Chideya, was contented with the here and now of the sun’s surface, made visible by the Astronomy Club’s telescopes.

“You can see the sort of swirls on the surface of the sun and it’s like... really sexy, that’s the only way to put it.”

That wonder and enthusiasm is welcome news for Justin Kasper and NASA.  Busy planning is underway for the first ever visit to a star.