NASA's Parker Solar Probe Adds Another First by Piercing Through Solar Blast Close to the Sun
Is the Parker Solar Probe made of Teflon? Because nothing sticks to it, not even solar explosions. For the past five years, this NASA spacecraft has been smashing records. It’s the closest man-made object to the sun, the fastest of its kind, and it was the first to “kiss” our fiery star. And now, it’s chalked up another first: a daring flight through a massive solar eruption near the sun.
Exactly one year after the actual event, a new study published in The Astrophysical Journal reveals that the Parker Solar Probe flew through a coronal mass ejection (CME). These violent eruptions can shoot out magnetic fields and billions of tons of plasma at speeds ranging from 60 to 1,900 miles per second. Aimed at Earth, these outbursts could trigger gorgeous auroras, but also have the potential to wreak havoc on satellite electronics and even cause power grid failures.
Up Close and Personal With a Solar Storm
The probe was orbiting on the far side of the sun, just 5.7 million miles from the sun’s surface, which is closer than Mercury ever gets. Initially, it detected the CME from a distance before brushing past its side. It then entered the structure, crossed its leading shock wave, and eventually made its way out the other end.
During this unprecedented journey, the probe spent nearly two days studying the CME. “This is the closest we’ve ever been to the sun while observing a CME,” said Nour Raouafi, the Parker Solar Probe’s project scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. “We’ve never witnessed an event of this size from this close-up.”
How Dangerous Could This Be for Earth?
The CME observed on Sept. 5, 2022, was no small event. The spacecraft’s Solar Wind Electrons, Alphas and Protons (SWEAP) instrument registered particle speeds reaching up to 840 miles per second. If such a CME were directed toward Earth, it would be nearly as powerful as the Carrington Event—the strongest solar storm ever recorded to have hit Earth, Raouafi pointed out.
Amazingly, the probe withstood the solar onslaught, thanks to its heat shield, radiators, and thermal protection system. Jim Kinnison, the mission systems engineer at APL, said, “Parker was designed from the get-go to handle situations like this, and it’s proven its mettle.”
The Quest for Understanding Solar Explosions
Space scientists are keen to decode the mechanisms driving these solar explosions. Orlando Romeo, a space physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, and the study’s lead author, mentioned the limitations of current models to explain these close-up observations.
The research team managed to identify three significant intervals during the event. However, they found it challenging to link these together. “A low-density region with slow-moving particles was particularly perplexing,” said Romeo.
The team anticipates that more comprehensive models and additional CME encounters, especially given the sun’s peak activity cycle, will offer a clearer picture.
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