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Dear readers,

Want to go visit a star? O.K., we can do this the easy way or the hard way. The hard way is to aim out to the cosmos where the absolute closest star, Proxima Centauri, lies 4.1 light years away—or a cool 38 trillion km (24 trillion mi). The easy way—or easier, at least—is to aim inward, to the star that's closest to home: the sun, a relative arm's reach at 150 million km. On Aug. 12, 2018, humanity reached out that arm, launching NASA's Parker Solar Probe on a seven-year mission of solar exploration. And as NASA and others announced this week, that effort has begun paying off. This week, NASA announced that Parker became the first spacecraft to touch the sun, passing through its corona—the upper layer of the solar atmosphere—just 13 million km above the surface. That counts as exceedingly close to a body whose diameter is 1.4 million km.

Just staying alive to do its work was no small thing for the $1.6 billion spacecraft. In the region of the solar atmosphere that Parker visited, temperatures reach up to 1,300º C (2,500º F), or four times the melting point of lead. It is only thanks to an 11.4 cm (4.5 in) carbon composite heat shield that the spacecraft's instruments can survive and operate in such conditions.

And operate they did, as the ship surfed through the corona while studying numerous solar phenomena that have long intrigued astronomers. For one thing, the probe was seeking to learn more about so-called "switchbacks," magnetic ziz-zag patterns in the solar winds whose source had been a mystery. Barnstorming as close to the sun as it did, Parker has determined that the switchbacks somehow originate from the surface itself—though learning more will take further study. The spacecraft may have also determined the location of a boundary in the sun's atmosphere known as the Alfvén critical surface—the point at which the rising heat and pressure of the solar fires become great enough that the gravity of the sun can no longer contain them and they escape into space, becoming the solar wind. The Parker probe's instruments show that the craft appears to have plunged below or at least close to the Alfvén barrier, helping to narrow its location to no farther than 13.8 million km from the surface.

The spacecraft has a lot of exploration left before its mission ends in 2025. Between now and then, it will continue to circle the sun, eventually diving so deeply it comes within 6.1 million km of the surface. Starships are many, many human generations in the future. But spaceships—the kind humanity can build today—can reveal the secrets of the star we know best, and, by extension, the trillions of others that lie beyond.

—Jeffrey Kluger

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IMAGE OF THE WEEK
NASA

That's not a bruise on the bottom of the planet. It's the total solar eclipse which occurred over Antarctica on Dec. 4, as captured by the DISCOVR spacecraft, 1.5 million km (950,000 mi.) distant.


WHAT WE'RE READING...

Martian Copter Just Won't Quit

Expectations were modest on April 29, 2021, when the little 1.8 kg (4 lb) Ingenuity helicopter—carried to the surface of Mars aboard the Perseverance rover—lifted off for a quick up-and-down hop, marking the first time a human-made aircraft has flown on another planet. The plan at that point involved four more flights over the course of the next month, serving as a proof-of-concept project that would open the door to future Mars helicopters capable of doing real work, including conducting aerial scouting to help rovers and astronauts pick places to explore. But that was then. Eight months on, Ingenuity has completed 17 flights, amassing 30 minutes and 48 seconds of flight time.

Ingenuity has covered a total of 3.5 km, flown as high as 12 m (40 ft) and reached speeds as great as 16 km/h (10 mph). One hair-raising moment occurred on the last flight, when the radio downlink from Ingenuity to Earth was lost shortly before landing. But later signals from the helicopter to the rover, which were then relayed to Earth, showed that Ingenuity was well—and ready for flight 18.

A Plague of Satellites

Think Amazon's plan to launch more than 3,000 satellites into low-Earth orbit to provide global Internet service represents a lot of flying hardware? What about the 42,000-strong Starlink constellation SpaceX is already beginning to put in space? Astronomers are complaining about the mess all of this flying, glinting metal will make of routine skygazing, to say nothing of the growing scourge of satellite and debris traffic in near-Earth space and the collision risk it presents.

Now, as SpaceNews reports, the already concerning problem is growing worse, as countries and private industry are rolling out plans for so-called mega-constellations. In September, the government of Rwanda announced its hope to launch a staggering 327,000-strong swarm of satellites—an overreach, perhaps, considering that the country has lofted only a single satellite to date, but part of a troubling trend. And in November, a Canadian company, Kepler, proposed its own 115,000-satellite mega-constellation.

The problem with these and other such locust-swarm projects is minimal regulatory oversight. In the U.S., the Federal Communication Commission has the power to approve or not approve launch applications, but that is just here—and the FCC has shown no inclination to turn its thumbs down so far. Globally, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) serves a similar function, but is similarly lenient with its approvals. "I don't see the ITU being extremely proactive on that," Michael Azibert, the deputy chief executive of international satellite operations company Eutelsat recently told SpaceNews.

Life on Mars? No, But...

News of life on Mars, if it ever happens, will likely come slowly, not with a bunny hopping across the floor of Jezero Crater or even the discovery of a colony of single-celled organisms in an underground aquifer—though that could happen (the cells, not the bunny). Rather, the evidence will be gathered one small puzzle piece at a time. This week, one of those little clues was added to the growing pile, when researchers presented findings at the annual gathering of the American Geophysical Union that scientists have detected organic molecules in rocks abraded by the drill carried aboard the Mars Perseverance rover.

As NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, IFL Science and others explain, organic molecules—which basically just means molecules that include carbon atoms in rings or chains that are linked to other elements like oxygen and nitrogen—do not remotely mean life. But they are a sine qua non for life, and they keep turning up in samples studied not just by Perseverance, but its sister rover Curiosity. The presence of the molecules is also consistent with rocks that were regularly exposed to water—another must-have for biology. All of Perseverance's evidence will get a closer look when a later joint NASA/European Space Agency mission picks up and returns to Earth 43 titanium tubes of Martian soil and rock that Perseverance is collecting and leaving on the surface.

Don't Look for Gates in Space

Jeff Bezos has done it, Richard Branson has done it, and people keep asking Elon Musk when he'll do it. The it of course is go to space, and when it comes to one of the world's other richest men—Bill Gates—the answer is simple: never. And nor—as he makes clear in a revealing interview with CNN—will he in any way participate in what is increasingly being known as the billionaire space race. But that doesn't mean he doesn't see some merit in what his flashier fellow billionaires are doing—especially Bezos's and Musk's satellite constellations.

"Having great internet connections throughout Africa is a good thing," Gates said. "Using observation satellites to see what's going on with agriculture and climate change. I do hope that people who are rich will find ways to give their wealth back to society with high impact. They can't, or shouldn't, want to consume it all themselves." Gates took care not to weigh in on the decidedly less essential business of space tourism, but did make clear where his attention would be staying. "Until we can get rid of malaria and tuberculosis, and all these diseases that are so terrible in poor countries, that's going to be my total focus," he said.

As for 2022, when Musk hopes to launch his new Starship rocket and Bezos and Branson look to make their commercial jaunts to suborbital space more routine? Gates sees the coming year as the one in which polio could at last be eradicated. "If Afghanistan can stay stable," he said, "it looks like we'll finally get wild polio down to zero."


THANKS FOR READING

Editor's note: The newsletter will be taking the next two weeks off. See you all in the new year; have a safe and happy holiday season.

TIME Space is written by Jeffrey Kluger, Editor at Large at TIME and the author of 12 books, including Apollo 13, Apollo 8, and the new space novel Holdout. Follow him at @jeffreykluger. It is edited by Alex Fitzpatrick.

We welcome any feedback at space@time.com.

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