After closest-ever flybys, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is unravelling mysteries of the Sun

NASA says the insights beamed back by Parker Solar Probe will help scientists rewrite the models they use to predict weather, understand the process by which stars are created and evolve, and protect astronauts and technology in space.
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Our Earth would be a lifeless planet without the Sun's heat and light. Everyone knows that the star at the centre of our solar system gives energy to plants and generates climate patterns, but the Sun remains engulfed in mystery.

Now, for the first time, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which has flown faster and closer to the Sun than any other human-made object in history, is slowly unravelling the Sun’s mysteries.

The probe has beamed back its first set of data from the edge of the scorching atmosphere, giving clues on why the corona, the Sun’s atmosphere, is hundreds of times hotter than its surface, and the exact origins of solar wind.

The image of Sun by Parker (Image: NASA)

The information the probe sent back revealed that the corona’s temperature and solar wind also lead to ejections of mass from the corona. The energised and accelerated particles moving away from the Sun due to the solar wind could affect the global power grid and telecommunications on Earth.

NASA said the information would help scientists rewrite the models they use to understand and predict weather around our planet and understand the process by which stars are created and evolve.

The data will also be vital to protecting astronauts and technology in space – an important part of NASA’s Artemis programme, which will send the first woman and the next man to the Moon by 2024 and, eventually, on to Mars.

NASA’s Sun mission

The Parker Solar Probe was launched in August 2018 in a $1.5 billion mission to help researchers get a keener understanding of the Sun’s inner workings. The mission is scheduled to last seven years.

The probe studied the Sun from a distance of about 15 million miles during initial flybys. That is already closer to the Sun than Mercury, but the spacecraft will get even closer in the future as it travels at more than 213,000 mph, faster than any previous spacecraft.

Parker Solar Probe inching towards the Sun (Image: NASA)

In an official statement, Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for Science at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., said, “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 US space agency has released four papers that reveal the probe’s discoveries in detail. The papers, published online in Nature, shed light on the constant outflow of hot, ionised gas that streams outward from the Sun and fills up the solar system – and how the solar wind couples with solar rotation.

The flybys also examined the dust of the coronal environment, and spotted particle acceleration events so small that they were undetectable from Earth, which is nearly 93 million miles from the Sun.

The probe also allowed a study of the solar wind from its source, the corona, similar to how one might observe the stream that serves as the source of a river.

Over the next six years, the car-sized spacecraft will follow an “ever-closer elliptical orbit”, technically “touching” the Sun.

Goals of the mission

The Sun has always been a focal point for scientists and they have been trying to unearth its mysteries for decades.

The primary goals for NASA’s current mission are to trace how energy and heat move through the corona and to explore what accelerates solar wind and energy particles.

This needs sending a probe right through the 2,500-degree Fahrenheit heat of the corona. Cutting-edge thermal engineering advances have finally made this possible.

The Parker Solar Probe is carrying four instrument suites designed to study magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles, and the image of the solar wind.

The mission was launched on August 12, 2018, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, in Delta IV-Heavy with Upper Stage launch vehicle.

This mission is a part of NASA’s ‘Living With a Star’ programme to explore aspects of the Sun-Earth system that directly affect life and society.

The programme is managed by the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland manages the mission for NASA. APL has designed and built the spacecraft, and is also operating it.

(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)


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