Spacecraft, flying closer than any other mission, set out to uncover the mysteries of the sun
Nasa’s Parker Solar Probe has beamed back its first observations from the edge of the sun’s scorching atmosphere, traveling closer to the sun than any spacecraft.
The very first tranche of data provides clues to long-standing mysteries including why the atmosphere of the sun, known as the corona, is hundreds of times warmer than its surface and the exact source of the solar wind.
Professor Stuart Bale, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, who conducted the analysis of one of the instruments of the craft said that, “The first three encounters of the solar probe that we have had so far have been spectacular,”
Professor Stuart Bale added: “We can see the magnetic structure of the corona, which tells us that the solar wind is emerging from small coronal holes; we see impulsive activity, large jets or switchbacks, which we think are related to the origin of the solar wind. And we are also surprised by the ferocity of the dust environment.”
The car-sized spacecraft will observe an ever near elliptical orbit over the next six years, finally swooping so close that it will “touch” the sun technically.
An disadvantage of being in such close quarters is that Parker won’t send home pictures. The camera would melt if it turned towards the sun, so the instruments of the spacecraft look sideways, measuring the stream of supersonic charged particles that make up the solar wind.
Scientists have previously observed that the wind of the sun tends to have two main components: a “fast” one that travels around 700 km per second (which originates from giant coronal holes in the polar region of the sun; and a “slow” wind which travels below 500 km per second, whose origin is unknown.
The Parker probe tracked the slow wind back to the small coronal holes dappled around the sun’s equator, solar structures that had not previously been observed. Coronal holes are cooler, less dense regions, through which magnetic fields stream out into space, acting as channels for the charged particles to flow along.
The findings also point to an understanding how blisteringly hot the corona is.
Prof. Tim Horbury, co-investigator at Imperial College London on the Parker Solar Probe Fields instrument, said. “The corona is a million degrees, but the sun’s surface is only thousands,”
Prof. Tim Horbury added that: “It’s as if the Earth’s surface temperature were the same, but its atmosphere was many thousands of degrees. How can that work? You’d expect to get colder as you moved away.”
Parker’s sidelong observations revealed that the particles in the solar wind appeared to be released in explosive jets, rather than being radiated out in a steady stream. “It’s bang, bang, bang,” Horbury stated.
Further he said, this rapid release of energy from the sun’s interior into its atmosphere could help explain why the atmosphere is so staggeringly hot compared to the solar surface.
A further surprise was the area’s dustiness near the sun. The probe was peppered with a fine dust during the closest approach of its orbit, chipping tiny pieces off its heat shield which appeared in images captured by the high-resolution camera as white streaks.
The remains of asteroids and comets are believed to have come close to the sun, causing them to evaporate, leaving behind a dusty haze.
The new observations were made while Parker was about 15 m miles (24 m km) from the sun, but ultimately it will fly to about 6 m km of its atmosphere, more than seven times nearer than the previous closest mission, the 1976 Helios 2 spacecraft.
Parker’s extreme conditions involved the use of unconventional materials and the design of spacecraft. During most of the closest approach to the mission, the white ceramic heat shields of the craft can reach a temperature of almost 1,400C (2,552F).
As it passes near the sun, its solar panels are retracted in the heat shield’s shadow, with only a small area remaining exposed to generate power. The craft also broke the record relative to the sun for the fastest moving spacecraft. In 2024, it will reach speeds of almost 435,000 mph (700,000 km / h).
Horbury said, “It’s a very bold mission, it’s really extreme and it’s an enormously impressive engineering effort,”.


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