NASA Enters the Solar Atmosphere for the First Time, Bringing New Discoveries
The headshot image of Abbey Interrante
DEC 14, 2021
Closer Than Ever Before
Into the Eye of the Storm
Narrowing Down Switchback Origins
A major milestone and new results from NASA’s Parker Solar Probe were announced on Dec. 14 in a press conference at the 2021 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in New Orleans. The results have been published in Physical Review Letters and accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.
For the first time in history, a spacecraft has touched the Sun. NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has now flown through the Sun’s upper atmosphere – the corona – and sampled particles and magnetic fields there.
The new milestone marks one major step for Parker Solar Probe and one giant leap for solar science. Just as landing on the Moon allowed scientists to understand how it was formed, touching the very stuff the Sun is made of will help scientists uncover critical information about our closest star and its influence on the 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 its 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.”
As it circles closer to the solar surface, Parker is making new discoveries that other spacecraft were too far away to see, including from within the solar wind – the flow of particles from the Sun that can influence us at Earth. In 2019, Parker discovered that magnetic zig-zag structures in the solar wind, called switchbacks, are plentiful close to the Sun. But how and where they form remained a mystery. Halving the distance to the Sun since then, Parker Solar Probe has now passed close enough to identify one place where they originate: the solar surface.
The first passage through the corona – and the promise of more flybys to come – will continue to provide data on phenomena that are impossible to study from afar.
“Flying so close to the Sun, Parker Solar Probe now senses conditions in the magnetically dominated layer of the solar atmosphere – the corona – that we never could before,” said Nour Raouafi, the Parker project scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. “We see evidence of being in the corona in magnetic field data, solar wind data, and visually in images. We can actually see the spacecraft flying through coronal structures that can be observed during a total solar eclipse.”
Closer Than Ever Before
Parker Solar Probe launched in 2018 to explore the mysteries of the Sun by traveling closer to it than any spacecraft before. Three years after launch and decades after first conception, Parker has finally arrived.
Unlike Earth, the Sun doesn’t have a solid surface. But it does have a superheated atmosphere, made of solar material bound to the Sun by gravity and magnetic forces. As rising heat and pressure push that material away from the Sun, it reaches a point where gravity and magnetic fields are too weak to contain it.
That point, known as the Alfvén critical surface, marks the end of the solar atmosphere and beginning of the solar wind. Solar material with the energy to make it across that boundary becomes the solar wind, which drags the magnetic field of the Sun with it as it races across the solar system, to Earth and beyond. Importantly, beyond the Alfvén critical surface, the solar wind moves so fast that waves within the wind cannot ever travel fast enough to make it back to the Sun – severing their connection.
Until now, researchers were unsure exactly where the Alfvén critical surface lay. Based on remote images of the corona, estimates had put it somewhere between 10 to 20 solar radii from the surface of the Sun – 4.3 to 8.6 million miles. Parker’s spiral trajectory brings it slowly closer to the Sun and during the last few passes, the spacecraft was consistently below 20 solar radii (91 percent of Earth’s distance from the Sun), putting it in the position to cross the boundary – if the estimates were correct.
On April 28, 2021, during its eighth flyby of the Sun, Parker Solar Probe encountered the specific magnetic and particle conditions at 18.8 solar radii (around 8.1 million miles) above the solar surface that told scientists it had crossed the Alfvén critical surface for the first time and finally entered the solar atmosphere.
“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, and deputy chief technology officer at BWX Technologies, Inc. and University of Michigan professor. “But it is very exciting that we’ve already reached it.” l