NASA’s Parker Solar Probe ‘touches’ Sun in landmark mission

by mcardinal

Chris Lange, FISM News


NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has successfully reached the Sun’s upper atmosphere, marking the first time in history that a spacecraft has “touched” the star at the center of our solar system. NASA officials announced Monday that the probe, which was launched in 2018, flew through the Sun’s corona, sampling particles and magnetic fields. Scientists hope to gather crucial data from Parker that will provide them with an understanding as to how the Sun was formed and “its influence on the solar system.” 

“Parker Solar Probe ‘touching the Sun’ is a monumental moment for solar science and a truly remarkable feat,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, in a statement posted on NASA’s website. “Not only does this milestone provide us with deeper insights into our Sun’s evolution and (its) impacts on our solar system, but everything we learn about our own star also teaches us more about stars in the rest of the universe.”

Data from the probe has already helped scientists solve one puzzle that previously eluded them: the source of solar winds. Parker passed close enough to the sun to identify the solar surface as one source of the particle flow of the winds which impact the Earth’s atmosphere. Geomagnetic solar storms cause disruptions to the Earth’s magnetic fields which can impact satellite communications and power grids. In 2019, the probe revealed the presence of “magnetic zig-zag structures” called “switchbacks” extremely close to the Sun, yet scientists were unable to determine where or how they formed. 

“Flying so close to the Sun, Parker Solar Probe now senses conditions in the magnetically dominated layer of the solar atmosphere – the corona – that we never could before,” said Nour Raouafi, Parker project scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. “We see evidence of being in the corona in magnetic field data, solar wind data, and visually in images. We can actually see the spacecraft flying through coronal structures that can be observed during a total solar eclipse.”

The spacecraft and its instruments are able to withstand the heat and radiation of the sun’s atmosphere thanks to major advances in cutting-edge thermal engineering. The Parker Solar Probe is protected by a 4.5-inch-thick shield of carbon-composite able to withstand temperatures up to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit which allows it to reach approximately 4 million miles’ distance from the surface of the Sun. According to NASA, the spacecraft travels around the Sun at approximately 430,000 miles per hour, “fast enough to get from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. in one second.” 

Scientists also hope data retrieved from the spacecraft will enable them to forecast space weather in the future. Parker is expected to complete 24 orbits around the sun in a seven-year time period.