The spacecraft made history by touching the Sun for the first time. NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has now flown into the corona, the Sun’s upper atmosphere, carrying sample particles and magnets.
The new landmark marks one major milestone of the Parker Solar Probe and a major leap of solar science. Just as the arrival of the Moon allowed scientists to understand the structure of the solar system, touching the exact elements of the Sun will help scientists to gain a deeper understanding of our nearby star and its effect on the solar system.
The Parker Solar Probe” Touching the Sun “is a milestone in solar science and a truly remarkable phenomenon,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, co-director of the Missionary Science Mission at NASA headquarters in Washington. “This momentous event not only gives us a deeper understanding of the evolution of our Sun and its impact on our solar system, but everything we learn about our star teaches us more about the stars throughout the universe.
Parker is finding new discoveries that other spacecraft couldn’t observe because they were too far away, including from within the solar wind, which is the flow of particles from the Sun that can affect us on Earth. Parker revealed in 2019 that magnetic zig-zag formations in the solar wind, known as switchbacks, are abundant near the Sun. However, it remained a mystery as to how and where they formed.
Park Solar Probe has now travelled close enough to identify one spot where they originate: the solar surface, after halving the distance to the Sun since then. The first flyby into the corona – and the promise of many to come – will continue to deliver information on processes that are difficult to examine from afar.
Flying so close to the Sun, the Parker Solar Probe is now detecting conditions in the magnetically dominated layer of the solar atmosphere – the corona – that we have never been able to detect before,” said Nour Raouafi, Parker project scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. “In magnetic field data, solar wind data, and visually in photos, we see signs of being in the corona. The spacecraft can be seen travelling through coronal formations that are visible during a total solar eclipse.
Parker Solar Probe was launched in 2018 with the goal of delving deeper into the secrets of the Sun by journeying closer to it than any previous spacecraft. Parker has finally come three years after its introduction and decades after its creation.
The Sun, unlike Earth, does not have a solid surface. It does, however, have a superheated atmosphere made of solar material that is gravitationally and magnetically bonded to the Sun. As the material is pushed away from the Sun by increased heat and pressure, it reaches a point where gravity and magnetic fields are no longer strong enough to retain it.
The end of the solar atmosphere and the start of the solar wind are marked by the Alfven critical surface. Solar material having enough energy to pass that limit creates the solar wind, which carries the Sun’s magnetic field with it as it speeds through the solar system to Earth and beyond.The solar radiation moves so fast beyond the Alfvén critical surface that waves inside the wind can never travel fast enough to return to the Sun, severing their connection.