Artist's impression of the Parker Solar Probe approaching the Sun. Credit: NASA

Groundbreaking Achievement: Parker Solar Probe Touches The Sun

The probe also recorded evidence of a potential increase in power within the Sun's corona, which is likely indicative of unknown physical processes affecting heating and scattering.

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NASA’s Parker probe “touched” the Sun for the first time – it entered the upper layers of its atmosphere, the corona. This was reported on Tuesday by the US space agency, noting that the apparatus had taken measurements of magnetic fields and particle samples in the solar corona. According to NASA, this is a new major stage in the mission and a giant step in the study of the Sun.


The Parker Solar Probe

The Parker probe was launched in 2018. It was created to study the solar corona and solar wind and there are four sets of scientific instruments on board the station, worth about $ 1.5 billion. The equipment is protected by an 11.43 cm thick carbon fiber shell, which allows it to withstand heat up to 1.4 thousand degrees Celsius.

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The Parker Solar Probe is moving so fast that tiny dust particles that come along the way are instantly ionized and converted into plasma, along with some of the spacecraft’s surface material. This process of collision of the apparatus with cosmic dust was studied by American researchers, who showed that ultra-high-speed dust over time can damage the shell of the probe and disrupt the operation of its instruments.

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Snapshots of coronal streamers, which were visible during Parker's passing through the corona of the Sun. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Laboratory
Snapshots of coronal streamers, which were visible during Parker’s passing through the corona of the Sun. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Laboratory

Solar Wind

Despite its high brightness and relatively close proximity, many aspects of the physics of the Sun remain unclear. The main unresolved problems include the mechanism of heating the corona and the nature of the cycles of activity, but apart from them, there are a large number of more specific questions to which scientists do not yet know the answer.

Much is unknown about the solar wind, the stream of particles emitted by a star. For example, observations show that the movement of this substance at some point becomes supersonic, but it leaves the star’s corona at a lower speed.

Consequently, there must be a process that accelerates this flow already at a distance from the Sun. At the same time, when it reaches the Earth, the solar wind is already mixed and sufficiently homogeneous, which makes it difficult to find out details about its acceleration.

The Parker spacecraft was launched to study these and many other questions of solar physics. The spacecraft gradually slows down and transfers to orbits closer and closer to the luminary. Now, researchers confirmed that Parker has entered the solar atmosphere.

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‘Touching’ the Sun for the first time in history

According to the data received from the probe, on April 28, 2021, during its eighth flyby of the Sun, the spacecraft entered its corona three times, lingering in it for five hours. In a new article, the scientists described the results of observations collected during this dive. All data are in the public domain in the NASA archive.

The fact that the probe entered and exited the corona several times confirmed that the Alfvén critical surface of the Sun was not smooth, but wrinkled. The largest fold on the surface is formed by a pseudo-streamer, a large magnetic structure found on the inner visible side of the luminary.

Several of the main milestones and achievements of the Parker Solar Probe on its way to the Sun. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Mary P. Hrybyk-Keith
Several of the main milestones and achievements of the Parker Solar Probe on its way to the Sun. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Mary P. Hrybyk-Keith

Direct observations from spacecraft can tell a lot about the physics of coronal heating and the formation of the solar wind. In the remaining over a dozen approaches, the Parker will continue to plunge deeper into the atmosphere and linger in it for longer periods of time. For now, its closest approach was just below 15 solar radii which equal approximately 6.5 million miles.


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Sources:

Crane, L. (2021, December 15). NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is the first spacecraft to ‘touch’ the sun. New Scientist.
Hatfield, M. (2021, December 13). NASA enters the solar atmosphere for the first time. NASA.
Howell, E. (2021, December 15). NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has touched the sun in Daring Mission Milestone. Space.com.
Kasper, J. C. (2021, December 14). Parker solar probe enters the magnetically dominated Solar Corona. Physical Review Letters.
Phys.org. (2021, December 14). Parker Solar Probe: A spacecraft has ‘touched’ the sun for the first time.
Witze, A. (2021, December 14). NASA spacecraft ‘touches’ the sun for the first time ever. Nature News.

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Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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