NASA’s Parker Solar Probe becomes the first spacecraft to ‘touch’ the sun

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said: “The Parker Solar Probe ‘touching the Sun’ is a monumental moment for solar science and is the a truly remarkable feat.

“This important milestone not only provides us with deeper insights into the evolution of the Sun and its impact on our solar system, but everything we learn about the star. own also teaches us more about the stars in the rest of the universe.”

The Parker Solar Probe was launched in 2018 and plans to orbit closer and closer to the sun. Scientists, including the spaceship’s eponymous astrophysicist Eugene Parker, wanted to answer fundamental questions about the solar wind flowing out of the sun, throwing energetic particles through the solar system.

The sun’s corona is much hotter than the star’s actual surface, and spacecraft can provide insights into why. Corona is one million degrees Kelvin (1,800,000 degrees Fahrenheit) at its hottest point, while the surface is about 6,000 Kelvin (10,340 degrees Fahrenheit).

The spacecraft has revealed surprising findings about the sun, including the 2019 discovery of a magnetic zig-zag structure in the solar wind called convert back.

Now, thanks to Parker’s latest approach to the sun, the spacecraft has helped scientists determine that these retrogrades originate from the sun’s surface.

NASA's sun-touching mission is unraveling the mysteries of our star

Before the Parker Solar Probe mission is completed, it will make 21 close approaches to the sun over the course of seven years. The probe will orbit 3.9 million miles around the sun’s surface in 2024, closer to the star than Mercury, the closest planet to the sun.

While that might sound far-fetched, the researchers assessed this with the probe perched on a four-foot straight line of a football field and the sun as the end zone.

When closest to the sun, the 4 ½-inch thick carbon composite solar panels would have to withstand temperatures close to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the interior of the spacecraft and its instruments would remain at temperatures pleasant room.

“Flying very close to the Sun, the Parker Solar Probe now senses conditions in the gas’s magnetically dominant layer,” said Nour Raouafi, Parker project scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. the Sun – the corona – which we have never been able to do before.” in Laurel, Maryland, in a statement.

“We see evidence for the existence of a corona in magnetic field data, solar wind data and visualizations in the image. We can actually see the spacecraft passing by the circular structures. can be observed during a total eclipse.”

Close-up of a star

In April, the Parker team realized their spacecraft had crossed the boundary and entered the solar atmosphere for the first time.

It happens as the spacecraft passes the sun for the eighth time and registers specific magnetic and particle conditions for a boundary where the sun’s massive atmosphere ends and the solar wind begins – far from the surface. sun 8.1 million miles away.

Justin Kasper, lead author of the study, University of Michigan professor and associate director of technology at BWX Technologies, Inc. statement. “It’s exciting that we’ve achieved it.”

Parker entered and exited the corona several times over several hours during the April flight, which helped the researchers understand that the boundary, known as the Alfvén critical surface, is not a smooth circle around Sun. Instead, it has spikes and grooves. Understanding the presence of these features could allow scientists to compare them with solar activity from the sun’s surface.

During the flight, Parker made another fascinating encounter as it passed 6.5 million miles above the sun’s surface. It passes through a feature known as a pseudocurrent, a large structure protruding above the sun’s surface that has been observed from Earth during eclipses.

Parker Solar Probe witnessed these emitters as it flew past the corona earlier this year.

When the spaceship passed through the dummy transmitter, everything was quiet, like being in the eye of a storm. Normally, Parker is bombarded with particles as it passes through the solar wind. In this case, the particles move more slowly and the motion returns to a decreasing zig-zagging line.

The spacecraft will probably pass by the corona again in January during its next flight.

Nicola Fox, director of NASA’s helicopter division, said: “I’m excited to see what Parker finds as it continues to pass the corona in the coming years. “The opportunities for new discoveries are limitless.”

Experts say the sun has started a new solar cycle

Parker will likely be in the right place at the right time during future flybys as the sun’s 11-year cycle heats up with activity over the next few years. Every 11 years, the sun completes a cycle of calm and stormy solar activity and begins a new one.

It is important to understand the solar cycle because space weather caused by the sun – eruptions such as solar flares and coronal mass ejection events – can impact the grid, satellites, GPS , airlines, rockets and astronauts in space.

The latest solar cycle, which began in December 2019, has been predicted to peak in July 2025, meaning an increase in solar activity.

This means that the outer edge of the sun’s corona will expand, and Parker will likely spend more time flying through the sun’s mysterious outer atmosphere.

“It’s a really important area to get into because we think all kinds of physics are likely to work,” says Kasper. “And now we’re entering that region and hopefully start to see some of this physics and behavior.”


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