Thousands of kilometers away, right now, a man-made spacecraft is orbiting the sun at a speed of 600,000 kilometers per hour while, thanks to an engineered heat shield that can withstand a temperature of one million degrees Celsius, scientists are conducting experiments at… room temperature . An exciting period of exploration of the star of the solar system has begun in recent years, an effort with Greek participation that was recently awarded by the American NASA.

“This is incredible technology. The Parker Solar Probe and Solar Orbiter are two new spacecraft thanks to which humanity “touches” the sun closer than ever. NASA’s Parker Solar Probe was launched on August 4, 2018, and is constantly making a loop-like orbit around the sun. Each time it does another one, the loop gets closer and so Parker without crashing into the Sun will reach a distance equal to 9 radii of our star, its closest perihelion. These are frighteningly close distances and we can say that humanity is “touching” the Sun”, explained Dr. Olga Malandraki, Greek Space Physics researcher, expert in space weather, head of the Space Weather Operational Unit of the National Observatory of Athens (EAA) which provides unique on an international level Space Weather forecasts.

“The other spacecraft, the Solar Orbiter, of the European ESA whose launch took place on February 10, 2020 is the second also important new effort. We are cooperating with these missions, something that testifies to the high level of research that is done at the Observatory”, noted the Greek researcher who last week returned to Greece with an important distinction.

The mysterious heliosphere and the Greek distinction

The Greek head of the ESA’s Space Weather Operations Unit returned with an important NASA prize, the Group Achievement Award, for her work with the Parker Solar Probe Team that has been tasked with analyzing data from this advanced space probe. “The Team Achievement Award was presented to the scientists of the Parker Solar Probe mission in recognition of the team’s efforts to create and operate Humanity’s first “touch the Sun” mission. We are excited to participate”, emphasized Ms. Malandrakis who also described the goals set by the Parker Solar Probe and Solar Orbiter missions.

“Humanity knows, based on the missions we’ve flown, data about the sun up to the so-called L1 point. L1 is directly in front of Earth, a point where the Sun’s gravitational force balances with Earth’s. It’s right in front of the nose of the magnetosphere, so outside the Earth’s magnetic field, and over there are the spaceships. And in the 1980s, the HELIOS spacecraft – a German collaboration with NASA – went there, which went a third of the distance, but didn’t have the technology experiments we have today. Therefore, the part of the space between the Sun and the Earth, the inner heliosphere as it is called, was a mystery…” explained the Greek Space Physics researcher.

Two spaceships, one mission around the Sun

Ms. Malandrakis participates in the IS⊙IS experiment with Professor McComas from Princeton University as Principal Investigator, in the Energetic Particle Detector with Professors Javier Rodriguez-Pacheco and Bob Wimmer-Schweingrueber Spain and Germany respectively as Co-Investigator in the Solar Orbiter and as reported “…some strange effects near the Sun” have already been observed. She points out the paradox in space physics, that the temperature does not decrease as one moves away from the sun. “The Solar Orbiter found with amazing clarity images in active centers on the sun on its surface that there are some small, small, small explosions which they call “campfire events”, small fires that heat the crown of the Sun and are likely to be responsible on a large scale for this paradox”, revealed the Greek Space Physics researcher. At the same time he noted: “phenomena have been found that we do not see at all from the Earth’s orbit. They occur close to the sun, are small phenomena and have the effect of filling the area around the sun like a reservoir of particles. These cannot be detected on Earth because they are of lower intensity and coincide with periods when the Sun is in a fairly low period of activity. This is very important because it means that there are already particles around the Sun where larger explosions start at a high energy level and accelerate them further. This is how we understand why some particles finally reach the Earth’s orbit at these high intensities.”

As the Greek researcher mentioned, the scientific field has received significant promotion in recent years. “It’s a good time, because we have NASA, ESA, the Japanese launching, we have a fleet of spacecraft that give that kind of data. Greece has developed a lot since becoming a member of the European Space Agency. In the field of Space it is important to be present as Greek researchers, to have funding to advance programs so that we can provide jobs here” he added.