Parker Solar Probe

Here are the First Pictures From the Parker Solar Probe. Wait… That’s Not the Sun

On August 12th, 2018, NASA launched the first spacecraft that will ever “touch” the face of the Sun. This was none other than the Parker Solar Probe, a mission that will revolutionize our understanding of the Sun, solar wind, and “space weather” events like solar flares. Whereas previous missions have observed the Sun, the Parker Solar Probe will provide the closest observations in history by entering the Sun’s atmosphere (aka. the corona).

And now, just over a month into the its mission, the Parker Solar Probe has captured and returned its first-light data. This data, which consisted of images of the Milky Way and Jupiter, was collected by the probe’s four instrument suites. While the images were not aimed at the Sun, the probe’s primary focus of study, they successfully demonstrated that the Parker probe’s instruments are in good working order.

These instruments consist of the FIELDS magnetometer, the Wide-Field Imager for Parker Solar Probe  (WISPR) imager,  the Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons (SWEAP) investigation, and the Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun (ISIOS) instrument. These instruments will work in tandem to measure the Sun’s electric and magnetic fields, particles from the Sun and the solar wind, and capture images of the Sun’s corona.

The images that were acquired (shown at top, left to right) were taken by the WISPR instrument’s outer and inner telescopes, respectively. The image on the left, which has a 58° field of view and extends to about 160° from the Sun, shows the disc of the Milky Way and is focused on the galactic center. The image on the right, which has a 40° field of view and is 58.5 degrees from the Sun’s center (from its right edge) shows Jupiter as a bright dot.

When the Parker Solar Probe reaches the Sun, we can expect images of a very different kind. Basically, WISPR will take pictures of coronal mass ejections (CMEs), jets and other ejecta from the Sun. The purpose of this will be to asses the large-scale structure of the corona, solar wind and ejecta before the spacecraft flies through them. Once the probe reaches the corona or flies through these “space weather” events, the craft’s other instruments will take in-situ measurements.

The probe will be able to image the solar atmosphere thanks to the Parker Probe’s heat shield, which will block most of the Sun’s light and protect its instruments from harmful radiation. The cameras also rely on radiation-hardened Active Pixel Sensor CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) detectors and BK7 glass, which is more resistant to radiation and hardened against impacts from tiny particles.

Parker Solar Probe will use seven Venus flybys over nearly seven years to gradually shrink its orbit around the sun, coming as close as 5.9 million km (3.7 million mi) to the Sun by 2025, well within the orbit of Mercury. Credit: NASA

Tests of the spacecraft’s instruments began in early September and will be followed shortly by the commencement of the probe’s science operations. This week (on September 28th), it will conduct its first flyby of Venus and perform its first gravity assist with the planet by early October. This will cause the spacecraft to assume a 180-day orbit of the Sun, which will bring it to a distance of about 24 million km (15 million mi).

The probe will conduct several gravity-assist maneuvers with Venus over the course of the next seven years, gradually bringing itself to a minimum distance of 5.9 million km (3.7 million miles) to the Sun by 2025. However, we can expect to see some more images from this mission long before then. In total, the probe will conduct 24 passes of the Sun, and each pass is sure to involve some stunning images.

And what the probe does discovers when it flies into the Sun’s corona, effectively getting closer to the Sun than any previous mission in the history of spaceflight, is sure to keep scientists busy for years to come!

Further Reading: NASA

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is a space journalist and science communicator for Universe Today and Interesting Engineering. He's also a science fiction author, podcaster (Stories from Space), and Taekwon-Do instructor who lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and family.

Recent Posts

Fish Could Turn Regolith into Fertile Soil on Mars

What a wonderful arguably simple solution. Here’s the problem, we travel to Mars but how…

2 days ago

New Simulation Explains how Supermassive Black Holes Grew so Quickly

One of the main scientific objectives of next-generation observatories (like the James Webb Space Telescope)…

2 days ago

Don't Get Your Hopes Up for Finding Liquid Water on Mars

In the coming decades, NASA and China intend to send the first crewed missions to…

2 days ago

Webb is an Amazing Supernova Hunter

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has just increased the number of known distant supernovae…

3 days ago

Echoes of Flares from the Milky Way’s Supermassive Black Hole

The supermassive black hole at the heart of our Milky Way Galaxy is a quiet…

3 days ago

Warp Drives Could Generate Gravitational Waves

Will future humans use warp drives to explore the cosmos? We're in no position to…

3 days ago