(ORDO NEWS) — In 2018, NASA launched the Parker Solar Probe on an unprecedented mission to study the Sun up close. The mission was defined with three key scientific goals:
To trace the flow of energy that heats the Sun’s outer atmosphere.
Shed light on the sources of the solar wind – a constant stream of solar matter coming out of the Sun.
To study how solar energy particles are transported and accelerated, which can travel 150 million kilometers to Earth in less than an hour.
Now, four years after launch, the mission is well on its way to achieving these and other key goals. Continuing its mission, the Parker Solar Probe continues to break records and make first-of-its-kind solar measurements.
Here are the essential facts about NASA’s historic mission to explore the Sun.
1. The Parker Solar Probe is the first NASA mission to be named after a living person
. After Eugene Parker, the eminent physicist who first predicted the solar wind. NASA announced in May 2017 that it would be renaming the Solar Probe Plus mission to Parker Solar Probe.
Parker personally oversaw the launch of the spacecraft and the discoveries made over the several years of the mission. He passed away on March 15, 2022 at the age of 94.
2. The spacecraft carries revolutionary technology
The mission was conceived in 1958, but it took 60 years to develop the technology to carry it out. Designed and built at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, the Parker Solar Probe features a heat shield, self-contained on-board “helpers” to keep the spacecraft pointed at the Sun, and an efficient cooling system.
3. This is a multiple record holder
Just a few months after launch, Parker Solar Probe became the closest man-made object to the Sun, passing at a distance of 42.72 million kilometers from its surface, and the fastest man-made object, reaching a speed of 247,000 kilometers per hour.
Since then, it has repeatedly broken both of these records, and in 2024, when it will fly at a distance of 6.2 million kilometers from the surface of the Sun, its maximum speed will be about 700,000 kilometers per hour.
4. The Parker Solar Probe has officially sampled the Sun
In December 2021, NASA announced that the Parker Solar Probe had achieved its milestone goal of taking measurements from inside a star’s atmosphere for the first time.
5. He made important discoveries
Parker Solar Probe is equipped with four sets of instruments, and each of them is credited with several revolutionary discoveries. A few of them are described below. Solar Wind Alpha Electron and Proton ( SWEAP)
Study: Exploring How the Sun Turns into the Solar Wind
Before this crossing, no one knew what this border looked like. During its first close pass to cross the border, the Parker Solar Probe entered and exited the corona several times.
This made it possible to obtain key information about the shape of the boundary, showing that the Alfvén critical surface does not have the shape of a smooth ball. Rather, it has spikes and valleys that crinkle the surface.
The SWEAP instrument found that the wrinkles are caused by coronal streamers – giant plumes of solar material rising through the solar atmosphere.
Streamers have long been observed by spacecraft tracking the Sun near the Earth, but have never been directly measured before. The results are changing our understanding of the solar atmosphere and how it turns into the solar wind.
Parker Solar Probe’s Wide Field Camera (WISPR): First hints of a dust-free zone
Dust almost everywhere in our solar system is the remnant of collisions that formed planets, asteroids, comets and other celestial bodies billions of years ago.
Nearly a century ago, astronomer Henry Norris Russell predicted that there must be a region around the Sun where dust particles are heated enough to sublimate and disappear, creating a dust-free zone. People have been looking for evidence of the existence of a sublimation zone for decades, but there has been no evidence of its existence.
The WISPR instrument detected dust depletion near the Sun for the first time by observing light reflected from dust dimming at a distance of about 19 solar radii, or 13.2 million kilometers from the Sun. Model results show that a dust-free zone should exist starting at about 5 solar radii, or 3.5 million kilometers, from the Sun.
FIELDS: Tracking the Sun’s Magnetic Reversals
When the Parker Solar Probe sent back its first observations of the Sun, scientists found that the magnetic field measurements were accompanied by what they call “backward transitions”: rapid surges in the Sun’s magnetic field that changed direction like a zigzag mountain road.
Since then, FIELDS has helped figure out their origins. During the Parker Solar Probe’s 6th flyby of the sun, FIELDS data showed that the switching coincided with magnetic “vortices” on the solar surface.
These vortices arise between structures called supergranules, gigantic bubbles in the Sun in which hot plasma from the solar interior rises, spreads across the surface, cools, and then sinks back down. The magnetic geometry of these regions suggests that magnetic reconnection powers the solar wind.
While the new results allow us to determine where the switches occur, the question of how they are formed is still the subject of active research.
Integrated Solar Science Investigation (ISʘIS): Rewriting the book on solar energy particles
ISʘIS, which includes the symbol of the sun in its abbreviation, measures solar energy particles – the most energetic particles emitted from the Sun. Measurements of solar energy particles near the Earth are relatively rare and difficult to predict.
But by finding them near the Sun, ISʘIS has changed almost everything we know about these fast particles. ISʘIS found that particles are much more common than expected, that they contain a wider range of particle types than expected, and that their paths from the Sun are not as direct as previously thought – they can be disturbed by switching, detected fields, and can sometimes follow a path twice as long as expected.
By measuring these events so close to the Sun, ISʘIS detects events so small that all trace of them is lost before they reach Earth,
… And the results keep coming
Each new set of data pushes the boundaries of space science – and it’s not just about the Sun. The Parker Solar Probe has also studied comets, detected radio emissions from the atmosphere of Venus, and even made the first-ever images of the surface of Venus in the visible wavelength range.
The closest flyby to the Sun will take place in 2024, and only time will tell what new discoveries await us.
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