Parker Solar Probe enters sun’s outer atmosphere for the first time ever

Parker Solar Probe enters sun’s outer atmosphere for the first time ever
15 Dec, 2021

The Parker Solar Probe, one of the most ambitious space exploration ventures by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), entered the sun’s outer atmosphere, called corona, for the first time ever. According to data shared by NASA, the probe ventured into the violent corona for the first time ever in April, marking this as the closest approach that a man-made object has ever made towards a star.

The findings of the study, made by scientists at NASA based on Parker’s data, will be published tomorrow, December 16, at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting.

Venturing into the sun’s corona is of massive significance. The sun’s outer atmosphere is the region where solar material breaks free from the star’s gigantic gravitational and magnetic forces. Studying this region is critical as it can help researchers better understand how the solar surface, or the photosphere, reacts -- thereby causing solar storms.

Describing the findings in NASA’s media briefing, Stuart Bale of the University of California, Berkeley, said, “We saw the conditions change completely. Inside the corona, the Sun's magnetic field grew much stronger, and it dominated the movement of the particles there. So the spacecraft was surrounded by material that was truly in contact with the Sun.”

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Solar storms occur when reactions on the sun’s surface ejects solar material across the entire solar system. Violent solar storms of higher magnitude cross our planet as well, and numerous scientists have stated that in future, a potentially high magnitude solar storm can wreak havoc on our planet -- capable of bringing down the entire world’s communication and geolocation systems, as well as power grids.

The Parker Solar Probe crossed a line above the sun’s corona, known as the Alfven critical boundary, to approach as close as 13 million kilometres above the solar surface, or the photosphere. This was the first approach of its kind, with Parker flying at almost 500,000 kilometres per hour through this volatile area. By 2025, scientists at NASA state that it will go doubly close -- to within 7 million kilometres of the photosphere.

Studying the corona will be key to understanding solar wind and storms, as it is here that solar particles are suddenly accelerated into supersonic winds. It is also an unexplained area of superheating -- scientists say that while the solar surface measures about 6,000 degrees Celsius, the corona heats up to almost 1 million degrees Celsius.

The reactions in this region, therefore, will be key to understanding how the sun’s magnetic field and its changes affect particles in this region. This knowledge can, in turn, help mankind build technologies to help infrastructure on Earth withstand a future volatile outburst from the sun -- and stop satellites and on-ground grids from crashing.