For the first time in the history of the human race has a manmade spacecraft entered the Sun’s atmosphere and survived to tell the story. NASA’s Parker Solar Probe continues making history while collecting never-before-seen scientific data about our sun.
The newest batch of data was recently analyzed by scientists. It was gathered during the first two approaches to the sun. The data, scientists have said, shows that our star is much more violent and mysterious than we’ve ever thought possible.
The main mission of the Parker is to explain why the most superficial layers of the solar atmosphere, the corona, can reach temperatures ranging from 1.7 million degrees F (1 million degrees C) to more than 17 million F (10 million C), according to the NSO. Much deeper inside on the surface of the Sun temperatures are much cooler.
Solving this temperature mystery is essential in understanding the behavior of the Sun and the solar wind, a wave of charged subatomic particles that is ejected in all directions.
Solar storms can be a threat to astronauts and cause significant damage to power lines and satellite communications.
“This first data from Parker reveals our star, the Sun, in new and surprising ways,” revealed Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
“Observing the Sun up close rather than from a much greater distance is giving us an unprecedented view into important solar phenomena and how they affect us on Earth and gives us new insights relevant to the understanding of active stars across galaxies. It’s just the beginning of an incredibly exciting time for heliophysics with Parker at the vanguard of new discoveries.”
The state-of-the-art probe has managed to explore an area about 24 million kilometers from the surface, that is, almost half the distance that separates Mercury from the Sun (57.9 million km).
The Parker Solar Probe follows an orbit which after taking it closer to the sun, it moves away until it reaches beyond Venus, the second planet closest to the star.
It is also armed with a thermal shield that always faces the Sun and is capable of withstanding temperatures of around 1,370 °C (2,500 °F). On the other side of its “superman” shell are the scientific instruments which are kept at about 30 degrees. The solar shield is hexagonal, mounted on the Sun-facing side of the spacecraft, 2.3 m (7.5 ft) in diameter, 11.4 cm (4.5 in) thick, and is made of reinforced carbon-carbon composite.
The first results of the data gathered by the spacecraft have been published in four studies in Nature.
Among the most important discoveries, the Solar Probe discovered quick reversals in the magnetic field and sudden, faster-moving jets of material detected by the FIELDS instrument.
These reversals appear to be a common phenomenon in the flow of solar wind within the orbit of Mercury and last from a few seconds to several minutes. However, they do not seem to be present at a distance farther from the Sun, making them undetectable without flying directly through the solar wind as the Parker Solar Probe has done. The exact source of the switchbacks isn’t yet understood.
Studies using the SWEAP — short for Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons instruments have revealed interesting clues to how the rotation of the Sun affects the outgoing flow of the solar wind. Near our planet, the solar wind flows past Earth, since it initially travels almost in straight lines — or “radially,” like the rays of a bicycle — in all directions. Parker Solar Probe’s solar wind instrument detected rotation beginning at around 20 million miles from the Sun.
In addition to the above, scientists have revealed that the Parker Solar Probe also observed the first direct evidence of dust dispersing about 11 million kilometers from the Sun, an effect that has been theorized for almost a century, but that had been impossible to measure until now. This was observed by the WISPR (Wide-field Imager for Solar Probe) instrument.
The ISOIS (Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun) instrument measured energy particle events never seen before. This is because every potential trace of its existence is lost before it reaches Earth. This instrument also measured a strange burst of particles with a high ratio of heavy elements – suggesting that both types of events could be more common than previously thought.
Understanding energy particles is of great importance since these can rise abruptly, potentially affecting space weather and therefore being potentially dangerous for astronauts.
The Parker Solar Probe has completed three of 24 planned passes. Parker Solar Probe is named after Eugene Parker, the physicist who first proposed the existence of the solar wind — the Sun’s constant outpouring of material — in 1958.
The spacecraft has become the first spacecraft to fly into the low solar corona.