Hydrogen Mysteries at the Center and the Edge of the Solar System

By Traver Kennedy, Chairman and CEO on August 28, 2018
Traver Kennedy
Home  / Blog  /  Hydrogen Mysteries at the Center and the Edge of the Solar System

Two Probes from NASA Scout for Answers

Hydrogen, the most abundant and oldest element in our universe acts as an essential building block for everything we see. The omnipresent element that powers our stars and sun plays a leading role at the center and the edge of the solar system. In both instances, hydrogen’s influence is not yet fully understood.

The sun presents an intriguing case for science. The Solar Corona is hydrogen plasma that surrounds the sun and acts as an atmosphere of sorts. It is significantly hotter than the surface of the sun (by a factor that ranges from 150- to 450-times), which seems to contradict the physical laws of heat transfer. Billions of miles away at the edge of the solar system, the New Horizons space probe recently detected a wall of hydrogen (which we did not know was there) that appears to mark the boundary where our solar system ends and deep space begins.

News coming out of NASA earlier this month brings us closer to better understanding the cosmic influence of hydrogen in shaping key properties of our planetary neighborhood. We explore these exciting discoveries in today’s post.

Touching the Sun

On August 12, a Delta-IV Heavy Rocket lifted off from here at Kennedy Space Center to launch the Parker Solar Probe on its voyage to the sun. As the BBC reported, “the probe is set to become the fastest-moving manmade object in history. Its data promises to crack longstanding mysteries about the sun’s behavior.”

Parker Solar as it was prepared for launch here at the Kennedy Space Center is now on its way to reach the sun before the holidays.

The Parker Solar Probe will travel faster than any other object launched from Earth before. It will reach Venus in six weeks and the sun six weeks after that. The probe will also get closer to the sun than any other man-made object before, literally “touching” it as it dives into the Solar Corona. The mission is designed to help scientists better understand the mystery behind the Solar Corona’s impossibly hot temperature compared to the surface of our planet. This is important because solar flares and the solar wind both emanate from this part of the star, affecting us here on Earth. From weather patterns to satellite communications, what happens in the atmosphere of the sun is felt on our planet a few minutes later.

The BBC reports, “over the course of seven years, Parker will make 24 loops around our star to study the physics of the corona, the place where much of the important activity that affects the Earth seems to originate.” They go on to explain that outbursts from the sun affect Earth’s magnetic field; depending on their size (what is often referred to as the sun’s activity), they can disrupt communications, knock satellites offline, and even cause electrical surges in our power grids. A deeper understanding of the physics behind the temperatures on the Corona will help us to not only understand these phenomena but maybe even predict them.

A Wall of Hydrogen

Meanwhile, at the edge of our solar system, NASA reported the discovery of a “wall of hydrogen” by another probe two days before the Parker Solar Probe lifted off. This time, it was the New Horizons interplanetary space probe that made worldwide news back in July 2015, when it sent the first close-up pictures of Pluto as it flew by. Before that, Pluto was seen as a dim dot of light visible only with the most powerful telescopes.

New Horizons as it was prepared for launch at the Kennedy Space Center is now at the edge of the solar system.

Three years after it flew by Pluto, the New Horizons space probe awoke to detect, “a glimpse of the massive, glowing wall of hydrogen that surrounds the solar system,” known as the heliosphere, which scientists believe “marks the edge of the sun’s neighborhood, the point where the rest of the galaxy and the universe begins,” Nature World News reports.

Since its encounter with Pluto, New Horizons has become a true explorer, traveling ever deeper into space and sending data back to us. What it may encounter, like this hydrogen wall, remains a mystery. ScienceNews explains: “As the sun moves through the galaxy, it produces a constant stream of charged particles called the solar wind, which inflates a bubble around the solar system called the heliosphere. Just beyond the edge of that bubble, around 100-times farther from the sun than the Earth, uncharged hydrogen atoms in interstellar space should slow when they collide with solar wind particles.” When the solar wind has no energy to keep pushing space dust, a boundary forms. “On one side,” LiveScience adds, “are the last vestiges of the solar wind. And on the other side, in the direction of the sun’s movement through the galaxy, there’s a buildup of interstellar matter, including hydrogen.” Although scientists still need to study what the probe is sending, what New Horizons detected is what a “wall of galactic hydrogen would produce.”

No Surprise

Throughout history, hydrogen has played a key role in furthering our understanding of the natural world. Many classical experiments performed with hydrogen throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries helped scientists to explain everything from water to combustion, and from the behavior of the sun to the functioning of our bodies. (Read our blog article, “Hydrogen and Progress: Ten Science and Technology Firsts Enabled by the Hydrogen Atom”). It should come as no surprise then that hydrogen continues to play a pivotal role in enlightening our knowledge of the cosmos. We are proud it is two NASA probes serving as the latest tools to help get us there.


Photos courtesy of NASA.
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