NASA’s Parker Solar Probe set a record when it launched earlier this year as the fastest spacecraft in history with a top speed of around 430,000 miles per hour. It’s not done making history, though. Parker has already completed its first flyby of the sun’s corona, and NASA says the probe’s early performance is everything the team could have hoped for.
Parker is an important step for NASA, which has wanted to study the sun’s corona up-close for decades. However, the technology to protect a probe in that environment didn’t exist until recently. It’s counterintuitive, but the corona of ionized plasma around the sun is much hotter than the surface of the star itself. NASA estimates the corona is around one million Kelvin, 300 times hotter than the surface.
NASA developed an advanced heat shield consisting of 4.5-inch carbon composite foam between two carbon fiber sheets to keep Parker safe, but it was impossible to know with complete certainty how it would perform until the probe reached our local star. Nour Raouafi, Parker Solar Probe project scientist at Johns Hopkins University says the spacecraft is performing “better than expected” after its first pass through the corona.
Parker made the pass through the corona between Oct. 31st and Nov. 11th. Researchers were happy to see that Parker could remain in the same pocket of plasma for several days during its transit, which means it can gather more data than we can on Earth. As the sun rotates, the plasma around it gets dragged along with it, so remotely monitoring the structures over time is tricky. The heat shield that kept Parker from melting also interferes with its data transmission, so it will take another few orbits for Parker to return all its new data.
It’s going to take time for NASA to make sense of all the data it gets from Parker. The team hopes to learn more about how the sun’s magnetic field works and now the “weather” around it can affect Earth. Parker has already sent back some cool images, though. The above shot taken with the WISPR instrument shows a coronal streamer with Mercury visible as the bright dot. NASA expects to have more to report after the probe’s next pass in April 2019. Parker is scheduled to make a total of 24 passes through the corona, getting within 3.8 million miles of the surface.
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