Would it be possible to build a suit able to withstand the surface of the Sun’s temperature?
Another interesting question from Yahoo Answers. I find Yahoo Answers fascinating not only because the occasional very thought provoking question gets asked amid all the “are we all gonna die in 2012?” claptrap, but because the answers themselves are very revealing of human psychology in general. The question in the post title provoked a number of responses. Many pointed out that on the surface of the Sun there are other problem to deal with, like the crushing gravity or the fact that the surface is a “foam” of hydrogen. Others helpfully pointed out that there is no known material that won’t melt at the temperatures on the surface of the Sun. Now I have faith that at least some of my readers are made of better stuff, think about it, does the gentle reader note any problems with the above two answers to the question? This isn’t a trick question. Basically, the problem with these answers is simple … neither of them actually answers the question as asked. The asker did not inquire about what problems there would be besides heat on the Sun’s surface, nor did they inquire whether any known material can remain solid on the Sun’s surface. Yet those were the “answers” they got to their question. And people wonder why I lament the lack of critical thinking that seems to be so prevalent these days?
Moving right along, one I suppose could make a case that the question was badly stated, but still, it’s not so badly stated that it’s hard to understand. Restated, the question is “Is it possible to shelter something from the heat in an environment as hot as the surface of the Sun?” FYI the Sun’s surface, or photosphere as it is called, is at about 6000K (10,340 degrees F, 5736C.) Yes, it’s very very hot, though not nearly as hot as the Sun’s corona, but that’s another topic. And oddly enough to my mind, sheltering say a Solar probe from such heat is an interesting problem.
Can it be done? Well, let’s look at it. Heat transfer is actually fairly straightforward, there are three ways heat can be transferred to an object from its environment, in this case our Solar probe floating on the photosphere. Conduction, convection, and radiation. Conduction is the most efficient method, this is why a tongue instantly freezes to a cold metal pole or why if immersed naked in 60 degree water, death ensues within hours. When an object is in direct contact with a solid or liquid, heat just flows like a banshee if there is a big temperature difference. The second is convection, that’s when a moving gas or liquid transfers the heat. This is how one cools a liquid by blowing on it, or why a cold wind is so dangerous. Lastly, and the least efficient is radiation. This is the heat one feels from the Sun when standing behind a window.
Now my astute readers may have noticed there is already a solution to at least two thirds of the problem. The first two types of heat flow require some sort of contact between the two areas. If we can somehow create a layer of perfect vacuum around our solar probe, even if it is only a millimetre thick, our solar probe is completely safe from heat gain through conduction or convection. So we’re already more than 2/3rds of the way there, already this isn’t nearly as impossible as people claimed.
Lastly we have the radiated heat. So how do we deal with that? Well, the same way we do on Earth in many instances. Mirrors. Radiated heated can indeed be reflected off of a surface. So all we need is a surface that reflects 100% of the radiated heat that strikes it, covered with a layer of pure vacuum. Ha! And they said it couldn’t be done! And there’s even some wiggle room, if say our vacuum or reflecting surface isn’t 100% perfect, heat will build up in our probe. No problem, we just build an air conditioning unit that sucks up some of the 6000k degree hydrogen around our probe, heats it up to 7000k degree and dumps it back onto the sun. So the answer to the original question is an emphatic yes, it is possible to build a suit that would withstand the heat on the Sun’s photosphere!
Is it practical? Well, the asker didn’t ask that, so we must assume he has some pretty awesome technology at his disposal. Frankly I can’t even begin to guess how such a vacuum could be maintained, how a 100% reflective surface could be made, or how an air conditioner that can handle that kind of temperatures can be built. Still, these are engineering problems, which doesn’t mean they can or will be solved, but it at least means that in principle the could be solved.
Still, if we are talking about an actual suit so that some future astronaut can go jet skiing on the Sun, there are indeed other problems that are even more daunting. Heat isn’t the only radiation in the photosphere, so were gonna need a few metres (or miles?) of lead shielding behind our heat shield. And the 28 times Earth’s gravity is, well, a problem. Even if our suit provided 100% support for our Sun surfer’s bones and muscles, things like our heart and internal organs still wouldn’t work in 28 gravities.
Back to the drawing board I guess. Tomorrow, a more down to Earth topic, why haven’t Al Qaeda and the Taliban launched waves of terrorist attacks inside the USA since 9/11?
(The above image was produced by NASA and as such is Public Domain under US copyright law so long as it is not used in a way that implies that NASA endorses a product or service. I can safely say that NASA does not support or endorse Doug’s Darkworld, in fact it’s unlikely that NASA is even aware that an obscure California blogger even exists. I’d feel left out, but my recent cosmology studies have shown that both Doug’s Darkworld and NASA are both so utterly mind-numbingly insignificant in the greater scheme of things that it’s safe to say that Doug’s Darkworld is equally as important to the Universe as NASA. Yes, a case can be made that cosmology is the most depressing subject in the Universe.)