A NASA spacecraft has officially ‘touched’ the sun, after it plunged through the unexplored solar atmosphere known as the corona, passing just eight million miles from the core of the star.
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe battled temperatures of 2370F and radiation 500 times stronger than on Earth as it made its eighth approach to the celestial body, finally passing through its upper atmosphere.
The flight occurred in April but scientists have only just been able to confirm the probe travelled through the corona, after waiting months for the data to arrive back from the spacecraft.
‘Parker Solar Probe ‘touching the Sun’ is a monumental moment for solar science and a truly remarkable feat,’ said Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a statement at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union.
‘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.’
New research gathered from the solar milestone, which cost NASA $1.5billion, has now been included in the Physical Review Letters.
‘Fascinatingly exciting,’ said project scientist Nour Raouafi of Johns Hopkins University.
Launched in 2018, the probe was named after American solar astrophysicist Eugene Parker, who created a theory of supersonic solar wind, increased our understanding of the sun’s corona and magnetic fields.
The probe that carries his name was built to answer fundamental questions about the solar wind that is released from the corona, flinging energetic particles across the solar system.
The spacecraft was eight million miles from the centre of the sun when it first crossed the jagged, uneven boundary between the solar atmosphere and outgoing solar wind.
The spacecraft dipped in and out of the corona at least three times, and each of those ‘dips’ was a smooth transition, according to scientists working on data from the probe.
‘The first and most dramatic time we were below for about five hours… Now you might think five hours, that doesn’t sound big,’ the University of Michigan’s Justin Kasper told reporters.
But he noted that Parker was moving so fast it covered a vast distance during that time, tearing along at more than 62 miles (100 kilometres) per second.
Due to the sun’s lack of a solid surface, the corona is where the action is; exploring this magnetically intense region up close can help scientists better understand solar outbursts that can interfere with life here on Earth.
The corona has a superheated atmosphere, made of solar material bound to the sun by gravity and magnetic forces, according to NASA.
And as rising heat and pressure push the material away from the sun, it reaches a point where gravity and magnetic fields are too weak to contain it – marking the end of the solar atmosphere and the start of solar wind.
These winds drag the magnetic field of the Sun with it as it races across the solar system, to Earth and beyond.
Until now, researchers were unsure exactly where the critical surface lay, putting it up to 20 times the size of the sun beyond the surface – or up to 8.6 million miles.
However, as Parker gets closer to the sun during its spiral trajectory, solar physicists can learn more and find that these estimates were correct.
“We were fully expecting that, sooner or later, we would encounter the corona for at least a short duration of time,’ said Justin Kasper, lead author on a new paper about the milestone published in Physical Review Letters.
‘But it is very exciting that we’ve already reached it.’
Source: Daily Mail