Last August, NASA launched its Parker Solar Probe to get some answers about our mysterious star,media outlet The Verge reported. More than a year later, the tiny robot is closer to the sun than any spacecraft, and it has begun to solve some of the mysteries surrounding its activities.
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is a car-sized vehicle designed to withstand temperatures of more than 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Its instruments are protected by a particularly robust heat shield designed to keep spacecraft relatively cool as it approaches our gentle host star. The Parker solar probe has been close to the sun, just 15 million miles from the star and closer than any other spacecraft before. “We’ve set records,” Adam Szabo, mission scientist for the Parker Solar Probe at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told The Verge.
Prior to the spacecraft’s launch, researchers were particularly interested in learning more about solar activity. The phenomenon of the constant flow of charged particles and high-energy particles of supersonic plasma that has been continuously emitted from the upper atmosphere of the sun is called the solar wind. This high-energy material enters the Earth, causing the northern lights to shine. Solar winds can also have an impact on our human activities, such as the failure of satellites in orbit or the disruption of the power grid. There’s a lot we don’t know about the solar wind, like what accelerates the material so much that it can shoot out of the sun. Understanding the origin of the solar wind can help us better predict how the solar wind will affect us on Earth.
As the Parker solar probe approaches the sun for the first time, researchers are learning some amazing things about how stars get closer to their surface. The first results and theories were detailed in four papers published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
Perhaps the biggest finding from the probe so far is that the sun’s magnetic field becomes unstable as it approaches its surface, switching directions back and forth. “What we didn’t expect was that the magnetic field really became very unstable,” Szabo said. The sun’s magnetic field is filled with magnetic forces moving in all directions. Near the sun, the direction of the star’s magnetic field will rotate completely around 180 degrees in a short period of time. “It was completely unexpected,” Szabo said. “It’s a major change in direction that we didn’t expect. So we’ve been thinking about what’s causing this? “
Szabo says their best guess is that strange magnetic changes are caused by the solar wind. Instead of flowing out of the sun in a continuous manner, some solar winds are emitted in the form of spikes or eruptions that travel faster than the surrounding medium. As Szabo claims, these “jet streams” stretch the magnetic field and completely reverse the magnetic force. These weird magnetic “foldbacks” may be the reason why the solar wind is able to break away from the sun so fast. When a “foldback” occurs, the magnetic field may reconnect with itself, causing a massive explosion and ejection of high-speed particles from the sun.
Eventually, the researchers believe, these solar vents collided into the solar wind that had entered the deep sky, creating a relatively stable stream of particles that we see from Earth. Although observations based on the Parker solar probe are justified, the study is still in its early stages. “Right now, we still can’t announce that this is the final answer to that question,” Szabo said. Closer to the sun should really solve the problem. “
The researchers found many other interesting details from Parker’s solar probe data, such as how dust particles travel around the sun. The Parker solar probe’s path around the sun is a shrinking spiral that will bring the probe closer to the center of the solar system in the coming years. Every once in a while, the probe uses Venus’ gravity to accelerate a gravitational slingshot closer to the star. In the closest position, the Parker solar probe should be within 4 million miles of the sun.