Launched on a Delta IV Heavy rocket back in 2018, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has now touched the Sun, flying through the Sun’s upper atmosphere – the corona.
This achievement was announced at a press conference at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting. Passing through the upper atmosphere, the spacecraft was able to gather more detailed data about the Sun and its influence on our solar system.
“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 the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Not only does this milestone provide us with deeper insights into our Sun’s evolution and it’s impacts on our solar system, but everything we learn about our own star also teaches us more about stars in the rest of the universe.”
Throughout its journey so far, the spacecraft has already discovered so called ‘switchbacks’ in the Sun’s solar winds, a unique magnetic zig-zag formation. These discoveries have provided answers and even more questions, like how are they formed?
Thanks to the Parker Solar Probe, we now know that switchback in the solar wind are common, and that they originate at the surface of the Sun.
“The structure of the regions with switchbacks matches up with a small magnetic funnel structure at the base of the corona,” said Stuart Bale, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author on the new switchbacks paper. “This is what we expect from some theories, and this pinpoints a source for the solar wind itself.”
The probe crossed the threshold on April 28, 2021, during its eighth fly-by of the sun. Checkout these images captured by the Parker Solar Probe as it crossed into the atmosphere.
As Parker Solar Probe passed through the corona on encounter nine, the spacecraft flew by structures called coronal streamers. These structures can be seen as bright features moving upward in the upper images and angled downward in the lower row. Such a view is only possible because the spacecraft flew above and below the streamers inside the corona. Until now, streamers have only been seen from afar. They are visible from Earth during total solar eclipses.
The probe will continue to orbit the Sun, passing closer and closer each time to continue to gather data on the only star known to support life.
Check out this video from NASA Goddard that further explains the significance of this milestone.