Published: Thu, December 05, 2019
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

Data from Parker Solar Probe helps unravel sun’s mysteries

Data from Parker Solar Probe helps unravel sun’s mysteries

NASA, the United States space agency launched its Parker Solar Probe in 2018, and this mission has successfully travelled closer to the sun than any previous missions.

The car-sized probe, launched in August last year, will come within some four million miles (six million kilometres) of the sun's surface during a series of fly-bys at other distances and trajectories over seven years. The spacecraft can withstand insanely high temperatures, enabling it to gather unprecedented data on our star and its effects on our planet. The four newly published studies detail findings that are the direct result of two record-breaking Sun flybys successfully performed by the Parker probe.

"All of this new information from Parker Solar Probe will cause a fundamental rethinking of how the magnetic field of the Sun behaves and is coupled to the acceleration of the solar wind", said Lennard Fisk, the Thomas M. Donahue Distinguished University Professor of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering. "That's something like 15 to 25 times faster than the standard solar models predict, so we're missing something really fundamental in our standard models of the Sun-how it rotates and how the wind escapes-and that's really interesting", said Justin Kasper, a professor of space sciences at the University of MI and the lead author of one of the studies, in a recent statement.

As it gets closer to the Sun, the probe is expected to hurtle around the star at 430,000 miles an hour, which will make it faster than any spacecraft in history. Full details, including data from the solar flybys, can be found here.

A simulation of "switchbacks", reversals in the direction of the magnetic field embedded in the solar wind.

Coronal holes, which are related to sun spots, are areas that are cooler and less dense than the surrounding corona.

One of the main goals of the Parker Solar Probe is to discover the source of the "slow" solar wind and how it is accelerated in the hot atmosphere of the Sun- the 1 million-degree Celsius solar corona. "They carry a tremendous amount of energy".

The solar wind is a stream of charged particles belched out by the corona. "We've already seen evidence for some very surprising phenomena-which you should always expect when you travel into regions where spacecraft have never been before".

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"We can now go look at the surface of the sun and figure out what is launching these waves", he said.

Because the waves flipped the local magnetic field, scientists dubbed them "switchbacks".

"There were thousands of these rogue waves seen in the ten days we were near the sun".

Parker, now 92, is poring over the probe's early results with interest. Over the coming years, activity is going to pick up until it reaches the "solar maximum" around 2024-towards the end of the mission.

"This is good practice because as the mission proceeds over the next five years and we get closer to the sun, the sun will get more active, with lots of sunspots popping up and a much more complicated magnetic field".

Another surprise, the researchers said, was the dust that peppered the spacecraft repeatedly during each fly-by at perihelion- the point in the orbit where the spacecraft was closest to the Sun.

Professor Tim Horbury from Imperial's Department of Physics is a co-investigator on Parker Solar Probe's FIELDS instrument, which is led by the University of California, Berkeley.

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