NASA spacecraft becomes first-ever craft to ‘touch’ the Sun

The Parker Solar Probe reached the sun’s upper atmosphere, gathering data along the way to help scientists better understand our primary energy source, the sun.

Scientists announced the breakthrough news at a press conference during the 2021 American Geophysical Union Meeting held in New Orleans on Tuesday, December 14, 2021. The probe became the first spacecraft to “touch” the sun this past April when it reached the sun’s upper atmosphere, known as the corona. 

“Parker Solar Probe ‘touching the sun’ is a monumental moment for solar science and a truly remarkable feat,” Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, says in a press release. “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 star also teaches us more about stars in the rest of the universe.”

Since the Parker Solar Probe launched in 2018, it’s been orbiting the sun and diving closer to the sun with every loop. On 28 April 2021, the probe finally crossed into the outer atmosphere and stayed there for about five hours. The probe crossed the Alfvén critical surface, which is the boundary between the end of the sun’s atmosphere and the start of solar winds. 

Solar flares are sudden discharge of high-energy radiation and ions. They are caused by the trapping of those charged particles inside the cage of a twisted and turned-magnetic field of the sun, as the sun does not rotate evenly. The ions discharged from the flares escape from the corona to give rise to Solar winds. Parker Probe took magnificent images of those coronal streamers.

 “The goal of this entire mission is to learn how the Sun works. We can accomplish this by flying into the solar atmosphere,” says Michael Stevens, a CfA astrophysicist, in a statement. “The only way to do that is for the spacecraft to cross the outer boundary, which scientists call the Alfvén point. So, a basic part of this mission is to be able to measure whether or not we crossed this critical point.”

A previously calculated boundary was estimated between 4.3 to 8.6 million miles away from the surface. The Probe confirms the estimations were close, at 8.1 million miles away. The probe also confirmed scientists’ hypothesis that the boundary wasn’t a smooth sphere, but instead has “spikes and valleys”. 

Additionally, the spacecraft figured out the structure in solar wind-shaped like zigzags or new revelations about switchbacks. Coauthor Stuart Bale says in the press release, “My instinct is, as we go deeper into the mission and lower and closer to the sun, we’re going to learn more about how magnetic funnels are connected to the switchbacks”.

Though the Parker Solar Probe has already offered a glimpse into the sun’s atmosphere, its work isn’t done yet. It will approach the sun 24 times over its lifetime, and in 2025, it will get closer than ever before—only 4 million miles away, Nature reports. It sounds far, but experts say if the sun is at the endzone of a football field, Parker will be at the four-yard line, CNN reports.

“I’m excited to see what Parker finds as it repeatedly passes through the corona in the years to come,” Nicola Fox, division director for NASA’s Heliophysics Division, says in the press release. “The opportunity for discoveries is boundless.”




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