The NASA Parker probe has entered the solar atmosphere

The NASA Parker probe has entered the solar atmosphere

After leaving in 2018 on a historic mission to study the Sun by getting closer to its atmosphere, NASA's Parker solar probe has entered this region for the first time. The vehicle's passage through the Sun's upper atmosphere, known as the corona, allowed for unprecedented sampling of its particles and magnetic fields, opening a new chapter in solar science and our understanding of how the solar system was formed. .

The Parker solar probe was launched with the primary aim of investigating solar winds. These are streams of subatomic particles that form in the solar atmosphere and are thrown outward, causing the Sun's magnetic field to affect ours and other planets throughout the solar system.

Studying these solar winds , which have intrigued scientists for decades, the hope is that we can learn more about how energy and heat travel through the Sun's atmosphere. Here winds accelerate from subsonic to supersonic speeds, and a better understanding of this process. can reveal clues to how life on Earth developed and how other stars were born around the universe.

During its journey to the Sun, the Parker Solar Probe set a series of records becoming the fastest object ever made, reaching speeds of 586,864 km / h. This happened during last month's flyby of the Sun, the 10th of 24 ever-closer orbits it will make during its seven-year mission that will ultimately take it 6.1km above the surface.

Data from the eighth of these flyovers in April, about 13 million km from the solar surface, revealed conditions indicating that the probe had crossed the solar atmosphere for the first time. This point, where the atmosphere ends and solar winds begin, is known as the critical surface of Alfven, and until now scientists were unsure of exactly where it was, although remote images had suggested it was located somewhere. starts between 6.9 and 13.8 million km from the surface.

“By flying so close to the Sun, Parker Solar Probe now detects, for the first time, the conditions in the magnetically dominated layer of the solar atmosphere, the crown, ”said Nour Raouafi, Parker project scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

Parker Solar Probe, on-board instrumentation. Credits: NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Margaret Brown

The data also revealed that the critical surface of Alfvén is characterized by wrinkle-like peaks and valleys, as some scientists had predicted. The hope is that understanding how these peaks and valleys align with solar activity from the surface will improve our understanding of how it affects the atmosphere and solar winds.

As the probe moved in and out from the corona, he also encountered are massive structures that can be seen on Earth during solar eclipses. Being inside these structures is described by the mission scientists as being inside the eye of the hurricane, with quieter conditions and slower flows of particles shaped by magnetic fields.

Other significant results of the The probe's close encounters involve zigzag-shaped structures in solar winds called hairpin bends, which the mission's 2019 data revealed to be abundant near the Sun. What remained unknown was where they formed, but the latest information from the solar probe Parker show a point of origin, near the visible surface of the Sun, known as the photosphere.

Scientists have discovered that hairpin bends occur and appear to line up with magnetic funnels emerging from the photosphere. They believe these magnetic funnels may be one of the places where the solar wind originates, especially the shapes that move faster. Stuart Bale, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is the lead author of the new paper on switchbacks.

As the spacecraft continues to fly closer than the Sun, scientists expect to learn more on these types of solar phenomena. This could include how the switchbacks are actually formed, understanding how the corona is heated to millions of degrees, and why it is warmer than the actual solar surface below it.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Directorate of the Scientific Mission at NASA headquarters in Washington explained that the moment the Parker probe "touches" the sun will be a memorable moment for science. "Not only does this milestone give us more insight into the evolution of our Sun and its impacts on our solar system, but everything we learn about our star also teaches us more about the stars in the rest of the universe." >

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