Following a successful launch last month that set it on a path to rendezvous with the Sun, NASA's Solar Parker Probe has fired up its scientific instruments for the first time. This first-light data from the star-bound spacecraft demonstrates that all is in working order as it hurtles away from Earth, and offers a taste of what to expect when it enters the Sun's orbit later in the year.
Equipped with sophisticated heat shields, the Solar Parker Probe will fly closer to the Sun than any man-made object in history, venturing as closely as 15 million miles (24 million km) to the surface. Mission scientists are now carrying out a period of instrument testing to make sure all is in working order once it arrives on the scene.
This included extending a set of antennas to designed to measure the electric fields in the Sun's atmosphere, known as the corona, removing the covers of the Solar Probe Analyzers that will track the solar winds, and firing up the Solar Probe Cup, which will measure thermal solar wind plasma.
Tucked in behind the spacecraft's heat shield, the Wide-field Imager for Solar Probe (WISPR) will also have an important role to play in the mission's success. The instrument will use its pair of telescopes to capture images of the structures emanating from the corona in unprecedented detail.
On September 9, mission scientists opened up the protective door in front of the telescopes and had WISPR snap its first image, made up of a panel from its outer telescope with its 58-degree field of view (seen on left) and a panel from its inner telescope with a 40-degree field of view (seen on the right).
The capture is nothing remarkable in terms of scientific discovery, with the Sun out of frame to the right. Jupiter can be seen as a bright object just right of center in the right panel, while the Milky Way can be also be seen streaking down the center of the left panel. These features did, however, enable the team to verify the instrument was pointing in the intended direction and functioning properly.
"There is a very distinctive cluster of stars on the overlap of the two images," says Russ Howard, WISPR principal investigator from the Naval Research Laboratory. "The brightest is the star Antares-alpha, which is in the constellation Scorpius and is about 90 degrees from the Sun. The left side of the photo shows a beautiful image of the Milky Way, looking at the galactic center."
The Solar Probe Analyzers and Solar Probe Cup also caught their first whiff of the solar wind, capturing about 20 minutes worth of data after being exposed directly to the streams of sub-atomic particles making their way through the solar system. All in all, the team reports everything to be in working order, as the probe prepares to make its first close approach to the Sun in November this year.
"All instruments returned data that not only serves for calibration, but also captures glimpses of what we expect them to measure near the Sun to solve the mysteries of the solar atmosphere, the corona," says Nour Raouafi, Parker Solar Probe project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland.
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