By 2018 (they hope, but no one really believes the budget will let that happen), NASA wants to send a probe through the sun’s corona. Scientifically, it’s not as silly as it sounds. The solar probe “will measure electrons, protons and helium ions in the solar wind, produce amazing wide-field 3-D images of the Sun’s corona, detect the electromagnetic shock-wave concussions and fields in the solar atmosphere, sample and detect the elements in the atmosphere and attempt to work out the heliosphere’s origins,” Fast Company reported.
As the BBC wryly notes, “Researchers say that the Sun is one of the few places people have not yet sent a spacecraft.” Presumably someone cut out the addendum “in this solar system,” seeing as we have yet to, say, explore the nearest star several light-years away.
Never fear, though; for tips on crashing spaceships into the sun, NASA need look no further than the 2007 Cillian Murphy sci-fi film “Sunshine,” in which some scientists — oh yes — crash a Manhattan-sized bomb into the sun. Why? Some technobabble about the sun petering out in the near future, Earth becoming a ball of ice (a fate not too bad considering August’s temperature highs) and only a giant bomb can restart it. One massive bomb already failed, for unknown reasons, to reignite the star’s fission processes, so earth gathers the remainder of its fissile materials and flings it and a handful of scientists at the sun again.
So what can NASA learn from “Sunshine?” [WARNING: SPOILERS]
1. Make sure the scientists involved are mostly young and attractive.
2. You need a gigantic heat shield because, well, the sun is hot. But never tilt it.
In the movie, the heat shield is a giant convex dish that keeps the enormous bomb and stick-like living area safe from the sun’s increasingly destructive rays. Anything that goes beyond the shadow of the shield burns off immediately. Unfortunately, critical parts of the ship are damaged or destroyed when their navigator changes course without tilting the shield.
3. You need a psychologist for when the hot young scientists screw up.
The guy who didn’t tilt the shield? Put on suicide watch. Of course, perhaps more importantly, make sure the psychologist doesn’t tan himself crazy. Speaking of, why would you even have a room where you can lower the sun shield? What’s the point? You know what?
4. No tanning salons.
5. The sun does not have a “surface.”
“Sunshine” ends with the ship/bomb crashing into the surface of the sun while Cillian Murphy reaches out to touch it. If you majored in physics in college, or have a rough understanding of the difference between gas and solid states, abandon ye knowledge here. The sun — essentially a giant ball of burning gas — does not have a surface, at least not the obvious-barrier-surface rocky planets such as Earth enjoy. The characters explain that its mass is so enormous time and space themselves fluctuate, blah blah blah, it’s more dramatic, but a real probe isn’t going to crash into any surface, so be aware.
6. The sun does not have a hole in it.
That’s where they were going to fling the bomb, and if you are staring incredulously at the screen slack-jawed, welcome to the scientifically literate community.
7. Do not explore any abandoned or alien ephemera floating around past Mercury’s orbit.
In “Sunshine” the crew discovers the previous ship drifting around near the sun. Naturally, they go explore it. What they find on board is the insane captain, who manages to sneak onto the new ship and nearly destroy it. Don’t want some insane guy damaging your $180 million probe.
8. Let more than one person know how the device works.
It’s sensible that everyone on the ship has different roles: physicist, navigator, captain, doctor, chef, etc. But really, when the entire Earth is at stake, maybe you should teach more than one person how to operate the bomb. Every time Cillian Murphy comes close to dying, so too does his unique knowledge of how to detonate the bomb. It took a few years to get to the sun, maybe he should have taken the time to teach someone else how to do it just in case.
9. There’s no way you could build a bomb big enough.
Although the point of NASA’s mission is less cool than blowing up the sun, this is still an important point to make. The sun contains 99.8 percent of the solar system’s mass. So, you know, a bomb made of all the earth’s materials would be like shooting a needle into a herd of charging rhinoceros.
10. No carrots; it slows up the narrative.