Troves of recent information from a NASA probe’s close encounters with the sun are giving scientists unique insight concerning the solar wind and space weather more usually as the spacecraft zooms by the outermost part of the star’s environment.
Scientists on Wednesday described the first published findings from the Parker Solar Probe, a spacecraft launched last year to move closer to the sun than any other human-made object. The results, offering contemporary details about how the sun produces space weather, are reshaping astronomers’ understanding of intense solar wind that can damage satellites and electronics on Earth.
Earth is over 90 million miles from the sun. The probe ventured as close as 15 million miles to the sun to gather the information used in the research published in the journal Nature. The probe will travel within 4 million miles from the sun’s surface, seven times nearer than any previous spacecraft.
The probe has endured extreme warmth while flying by the outermost part of the sun’s ambiance, called the solar corona, that gives rise to the solar wind – the hot, energized particles that flow outward from the Sun and fill the solar system.
Oscillations in the pace of these energized particles radiating outward from the solar corona have long been thought to dissipate steadily, like the waves seen after plucking a guitar string fading from the center.
One of the probe’s “surprises,” based on one of the researchers, was the detection of sudden, abrupt spikes in the velocity of the solar wind that had been so intense that the magnetic field flips itself around, a phenomenon called “switchbacks.”