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NASA sun expert talks solar probes, possible partnership with Carroll library

Under dim lighting, a group of about 35 science-minded individuals gathered in the cozy bakery that is JeannieBird Baking Co. on the corner of Main Street in Westminster on Thursday evening.

The group was there to drink wine, eat pastries, and listen to National Aeronautics and Space Administration heliophysicist Alex Young talking about the sun and Parker Solar Probe as a part of the Carroll County Public Library’s Dessert & Discourse series — which features various thought leaders as CCPL prepares for the 14,000-square-foot makerspace that will be Exploration Commons at 50 East in the Westminster Branch.


“He’s an amazing guy,” said CCPL Executive Director Lynn Wheeler after the talk. “The thing I love about Alex is, it’s not easy to make science that’s this dense so accessible.

“I’m not a scientist,” she said, “but I could listen to him all day. He’s an astounding presenter. The way he can bring it to life, he’s so into it, so enthused.”


And in addition to educating the group about the sun, Young — associate director for science in NASA’s Heliophysics Science Division — said NASA is also going to work on a future partnership with CCPL in efforts to get involved with Maryland libraries.

“Libraries are the most democratic institutions in our society,” he said. “The most accepting, open, accessible institutions, open to communities.

“We have an amazing amount of [resources] and one of our challenges is bringing it to the public,” said Young. “In reality, everything that NASA does is yours. NASA is a national organization funded for you with your tax dollars. The data we produce, the space crafts we build, belong to you.

“I can’t think of a better place to put them than in libraries,” he said.

The Parker Solar Probe

During his presentation, Young flipped through slides describing solar winds, magnetic fields and atmospheres.

“That's where everything is happening,” said Young, pointing to a black aura around the sun in a photograph. “And I can only see it in detail during certain types of light in an eclipse — which only happens every 18 months somewhere on the earth. It could be in the ocean, in Antarctica, and for only a few minutes.”

The same way that meteorologists aren’t content with satellite imaging of Hurricane Florence, he said, heliophysicists are not satisfied with only having images of the sun from a distance.

“They get these great images in space,” Young said, “but they still have to send a plane into the hurricane to get those details — in order to see where it’s going to go and what it’s strength is going to be, and literally stick instruments out of the plane and take measurements right there. Pressure, temperatures, right there.


“And we want to understand why these solar storms are happening,” he said. “The only thing we can do is go there, and that's what were doing. We just launched a space craft to go to that region where we’ve never been before.”

The space craft is the Parker Solar Probe, which was launched Aug. 12 to orbit the sun seven times. It is aimed toward Venus so that it can use the planet’s gravity and pass by the sun during its orbit, getting closer each time until it reaches its closest expected point in 2024, 3.9 million miles from the sun.

The big picture

Because the sun is 93 million miles away from Earth, Young said when the probe reaches 3.9 million miles, it will have gotten within 4 percent of the distance from our planet to the massive star.

And it will be very hot.

With a combination of a large white shield and radiators, though, Young said what would be 2,500 degrees at its closest point will be decreased to a more comfortable 85-degree temperature for the probe.

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Tim Henson, a Westminster resident studying bioinformatics, said the engineering of the probe itself was fascinating to him after the talk, “how they make the shielding [to protect it from the heat].”


He said he also thought that it was interesting NASA was using Venus’ gravity to direct the probe’s path.

John Holbert, an engineer and area resident, agreed.

“And all of the data that can be gathered in those passes could take exponential numbers of years for us to analyze,” Holbert said. “And all of those questions we’ve had since we were living in caves, maybe we will get some of those answers.”

“We’re living in the atmosphere of a star,” Young explained. “Understanding our star tells us about every other star in the universe.

“If we understand the sun, we better understand the entire universe,” he said. “So sending a mission to the sun isn’t just about the sun or the solar system, it’s about everything. It tells us about everything, the whole universe. So that's a big task; it’s an amazing mission.”

More information on Exploration Commons at 50 East can be found on its website and Facebook page, as well as upcoming information about other Dessert & Discourse events.