Mon. Feb 17th, 2020

the Spanish magic that came to NASA



“Now the real adventure begins,” says José Carlos del Toro, head of the solar research group of the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia (IAA). He wears a colorful striped shirt and does not take off from the sunglasses. It goes according to the more than 24 degrees that the thermometer marks in an always sunny Florida. There is also something nervous, He knows that the countdown has already begun. The team that created the So / Phi magnetgraph, the heaviest and most energy-efficient instrument in the Solar Orbiter probe, co-operates. “And it barely reaches 30 kilos and consumes something like two LED bulbs,” he insists.

Del Toro It is part of a Spanish trio that had not taken place in any other space mission, together with Javier Rodríguez-Pacheco and César García Marirrodriga. Pronouncing the latter’s last name well has become a challenge for Americans because they have had to do it often over the last few years, since he leads the entire mission. “Tonight begins our journey to meet the Sun”, indicates Rodríguez-Pacheco, astrophysicist at the University of Alcalá, who also marks another milestone for the science of our country. He is the first Spanish principal investigator of an instrument in a mission of the scientific program of the European Space Agency (ESA) for the exploration of the Solar System. It is known as EPD (Energy Particle Detector). Its main task when orbiting the Sun is analyze the mechanisms that accelerate these particles in order to predict solar storms in advance and take preventive measures. Because, although we believe that only ultraviolet rays affect us, the truth is that the magnetic fields of our closest star are key in space meteorology and, therefore, on Earth.

Prevent future problems

The flares that occur in the Sun not only create beautiful auroras, but that They are also responsible for failures in GPS tracking systems and can even create problems for future astronauts. Hence the uniqueness of the Solar Orbiter probe that wants to better understand how the star works and discover still unexplored areas, such as the poles.

An ambitious idea of ​​the 90s

Chatting with the three researchers we soon understand that the road has not been easy. Reaching Cape Canaveral with this satellite has also had difficulties. How long have you worked on it? From their faces it quickly follows that the question is naive, especially if you ask it to a scientist whose dreams are born very soon, but they take a long time to come true – if they succeed. “We would be talking about the 90s, when we meet in Puerto de la Cruz, in Tenerife”, Says Del Toro looking at the astrophysicist. “I was not then,” says García Marirrodriga. “But it was a very ambitious idea, with much more science, the avatars of the mission are what have determined what it is today,” says the IAA researcher. He doesn’t say it with sorrow, but aware that in between Spain has gone through a major economic crisis. “It gave us full,” Garcia-Pacheco adds, but they managed to get afloat and get financing that disappeared by other means.

The project manager, meanwhile, got on the ship relatively recently. ESA chose him only three years ago, but he is aware of the dedication of a mission from start to finish. He worked for eleven years on the LISA Pathfinder mission, which he launched in 2015 and seeks to observe gravitational waves from space. “We must not forget that any release is a singularity. Getting here is only achieved with magic, the one carried out by scientists and engineers to launch a mission ”. And it is this Palentino who acts as a traffic guard, as he likes to be called. His main objective is that, after the meetings, “everyone leaves equally happy or angry,” he says smiling. And it is that any mission is a give and take, between the scientific objectives that one would like to achieve and the technical improvement that affects others.

However, as Del Toro says, “Our Sun is no longer just orbited by eight planets, now a new one is added, although mini, the Solar Orbiter

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