Space

First results from NASA's world-first solar probe mission

First results from NASA's worl...
Sun as observed by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory
Sun as observed by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory
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Sun as observed by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory
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Sun as observed by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory
NASA's Parker Solar Probe observed a slow solar wind flowing out from the small coronal hole – the long, thin black spot seen on the left side of the Sun in this image captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory – on October 27, 2018
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NASA's Parker Solar Probe observed a slow solar wind flowing out from the small coronal hole – the long, thin black spot seen on the left side of the Sun in this image captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory – on October 27, 2018
One of the greatest threats from the Sun – to astronauts and the satellites that provide GPS maps, cell phone service, and internet access – are high-energy particles that erupt from the Sun in bursts
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One of the greatest threats from the Sun – to astronauts and the satellites that provide GPS maps, cell phone service, and internet access – are high-energy particles that erupt from the Sun in bursts
The Parker Solar Probe detected many small energetic particle events, solar bursts during which the rates of particles streaming out of the Sun increased rapidly
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The Parker Solar Probe detected many small energetic particle events, solar bursts during which the rates of particles streaming out of the Sun increased rapidly
Graph showing the interaction of energetic particles from the Sun
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Graph showing the interaction of energetic particles from the Sun
The point where one of 80 tiny telescopes looking in 80 different directions was punctured by a dust grain when Parker Solar Probe was at its closest approach to the Sun
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The point where one of 80 tiny telescopes looking in 80 different directions was punctured by a dust grain when Parker Solar Probe was at its closest approach to the Sun
A schematic of a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), during which a burst of material with as much mass as Lake Michigan is ejected from the Sun
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A schematic of a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), during which a burst of material with as much mass as Lake Michigan is ejected from the Sun
Artist's concept of the Parker Solar Probe
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Artist's concept of the Parker Solar Probe
Parker's ISOIS energetic particle instruments have measured several never-before-seen events so small that all trace of them is lost before they reach Earth
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Parker's ISOIS energetic particle instruments have measured several never-before-seen events so small that all trace of them is lost before they reach Earth
Artist interpretation of a dust-free zone around the Sun
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Artist interpretation of a dust-free zone around the Sun
Flips in the Sun's magnetic fields — dubbed "switchbacks" — appear to be a very common phenomenon in the solar wind flow inside the orbit of Mercury
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Flips in the Sun's magnetic fields – dubbed "switchbacks" – appear to be a very common phenomenon in the solar wind flow inside the orbit of Mercury
First results from NASA's Parker Solar Probe show flips in the direction of the magnetic field, which flows out from the Sun
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First results from NASA's Parker Solar Probe show flips in the direction of the magnetic field, which flows out from the Sun
The WISPR instrument on NASA's Parker Solar Probe captured imagery of the constant outflow of material from the Sun during its close approach to the Sun
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The WISPR instrument on NASA's Parker Solar Probe captured imagery of the constant outflow of material from the Sun during its close approach to the Sun
False dawn caused by solar dust
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False dawn caused by solar dust
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NASA has released the first significant findings from the Parker Solar Probe's first two close encounters with the Sun that began in November 2018. In four new study papers, mission scientists outline how the spacecraft passing closer to the Sun than any previous mission has both confirmed theories and sprung a few surprises.

When the Parker Solar Probe plunged to within 15 million mi (24 million km) of the Sun, it was more than a technological challenge to see if a spacecraft could survive the fiery ordeal. It was also a way to learn things about the Sun that are only visible up close and personal.

The real challenge is that many phenomena associated with the Sun are surprisingly complex, small-scale, and invisible against the Sun's glare of light and radiation from any real distance. That's the reason why Parker was sent well within the orbit of Mercury – to place a suite of instruments close enough to gather data as the probe's eccentric orbit sends it on its increasingly closer solar flybys.

Artist's concept of the Parker Solar Probe
Artist's concept of the Parker Solar Probe

In four new papers, space scientists reveal how data from Parker provides new insights into the Sun's activity, which will help in predicting space weather – especially solar flares, which pose a real hazard to astronauts, satellites, communications, and even earthbound power grids.

Every second of every day, the Sun spews out 1.9 million tonnes of material. As seen from Earth, this constantly blowing solar wind seems homogeneous and featureless, but Parker has shown that it's actually a dynamic and highly structured system that NASA compares to an estuary where a river meets the sea.

The first phenomenon that Parker has cast new light on is solar "switchbacks," which is the tendency of the magnetic field inside the orbit of Mercury to flip its direction every few seconds to a few minutes. These flips haven't been detected farther out from the Sun and could only be seen by Parker as it passed through the close-in magnetic field. According to NASA, these switchbacks can not only help in learning more about space weather but also in gaining a better understanding of how stars release magnetic energy.

First results from NASA's Parker Solar Probe show flips in the direction of the magnetic field, which flows out from the Sun
First results from NASA's Parker Solar Probe show flips in the direction of the magnetic field, which flows out from the Sun

Another Parker finding was how the rotation of the Sun affects the solar wind. From Earth's point of view, the wind comes from the Sun in straight spokes, but because the Sun is spinning, this rotation should have an impact on the wind as it is generated. As the probe came within 20 million mi (32 million km) of the Sun, it found that the wind was shifted sideways more, faster than expected, indicating that the interaction of the Sun and its corona is affecting the former's rotation, which could influence its life cycle.

The third finding is that there isn't a lot of dust in close proximity to the Sun. This has been suspected for about a century, but Parker is the first time that it's been seen directly. At the rate of thinning seen by the probe, scientists calculate that anywhere within about three million mi (five million km) of the Sun may be dust-free – something the Parker probe will be able to confirm during its sixth flyby in September 2020.

The fourth major discovery to date comes from Parker's Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun (ISʘIS) energetic particle instruments. These have seen energetic particles from the Sun interact on a small scale that has never been encountered before and involved a high ratio of heavier elements. NASA says that a better understanding of these interactions is important because their sudden onset results in potentially harmful space weather conditions near Earth.

"This first data from Parker reveals our star, the Sun, in new and surprising ways," says Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA. "Observing the Sun up close rather than from a much greater distance is giving us an unprecedented view into important solar phenomena and how they affect us on Earth and gives us new insights relevant to the understanding of active stars across galaxies. It’s just the beginning of an incredibly exciting time for heliophysics with Parker at the vanguard of new discoveries."

The research was published in Nature.

Source: NASA

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3 comments
Wolf0579
More indication that magnetism, not gravity, might be the driving force in astrophysics.
Joe Durham
I gotta say that Gravity vs Magnetism is like comparing the Sun' vs Man's effects on our weather. You'll always get idiots that think the Sun's effects on our weather is so small that Man could change our environment in a few short years. These are the same people that completely ignore that Gravity is what holds this whole solar system together. Yes, magnetism is a factor. But keep it at the small scales that it is prevalent at in the solar system.
warren52nz
@Wolf0579 Gravity is a relatively weak force but it works over vast distances. Magnetism is much stronger but only works in close proximity to objects. So gravity is the driving force in Astrophysics because the distances concerned are generally gigantic.