Parker Solar Probe Flies Through the Sun’s Outer Atmosphere for the First Time

For the first time ever, a spacecraft has flown through the Sun’s outer atmosphere. The Parker Solar Probe passed through the out portion of the Sun’s corona in April of 2021, passing directly through streamers of solar plasma.

And by the way …. there’s video of what the spacecraft “saw.”

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The Parker Solar Probe is getting pelted by hypervelocity dust. Could they damage spacecraft?

There’s a pretty significant disadvantage to going really fast – if you get hit with anything, even if it is small, it can hurt.  So when the fastest artificial object ever – the Parker Solar Probe – gets hit by grains of dust that are a fraction the size of a human hair, they still do damage.  The question is how much damage, and could we potentially learn anything from how exactly that damage happens?  According to new research from scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder (UCB), the answer to the second question is yes, in fact, we can.

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What we’ve Learned About Venus From the Parker Solar Probe

The Parker Solar Probe has been getting in a lot of extracurricular activity lately.  Originally designed to observe the Sun, the probe has been taking full advantage of its path through the solar system.  In addition to snapping pictures of comets, the probe has repeatedly focused on Venus, including capturing an image peering underneath the cloud cover of the notoriously hot world.  Now a team led by Glyn Collinson of Goddard Space Flight Center found another serendipitous discovery in the data Parker collected during its latest flyby in the summer of 2020 – the probe actually flew through Venus’ upper atmosphere, and that atmosphere appeared different than it was almost 30 years ago.

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Parker Solar Probe Captured Images of Venus on its way to the Sun

Last summer, the Parker Solar Probe flew past Venus on its way to fly closer to the Sun. In a bit of a surprise, one of the spacecraft’s cameras, the Wide-field Imager for Parker Solar Probe, or WISPR, captured a striking image of the planet’s nightside from 7,693 miles (12380 km) away.

The surprise of the image was that WISPR – a visible light camera – seemingly captured the Venus’ surface in infrared light.

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Parker Solar Probe Gives a Unique Perspective on Comet NEOWISE

Comet watchers have enjoying the newly-discovered NEOWISE comet since it was first spotted in March 2020. Now that it’s visible with the naked eye, in dark sky conditions, all kinds of Earthly observers are checking the visitor out.

But NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has another view of the comet, one denied to Earth-bound observers.

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Solar Orbiter is Already Starting to Observe the Sun

On February 10th, 2020, the ESA’s Solar Orbiter (SolO) launched and began making its way towards our Sun. This mission will spend the next seven years investigating the Sun’s uncharted polar regions to learn more about how the Sun works. This information is expected to reveal things that will help astronomers better predict changes in solar activity and “space weather”.

Last week (on Thursday, Feb. 13th), after a challenging post-launch period, the first solar measurements obtained by the SolO mission reached its international science teams back on Earth. This receipt of this data confirmed that the orbiter’s instrument boom deployed successfully shortly after launch and that its magnetometer (a crucial instrument for this mission) is in fine working order.

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The ESA’s Solar Orbiter, a Mission That Will Chart the Unexplored Polar Regions of the Sun, Just Launched!

In the coming years, a number of will be sent to space for the purpose of answering some of the enduring questions about the cosmos. One of the most pressing is the effect that solar activity and “space weather” events have on planet Earth. By being able to better-predict these, scientists will be able to create better early-warning systems that could prevent damage to Earth’s electrical infrastructure.

This is the purpose of the Solar Orbiter (SolO), an ESA-led mission with strong participation by NASA that launched this morning (Monday, Feb. 10th) from Cape Canaveral, Florida. This is the first “medium-class” mission implemented as part of the ESA’s Cosmic Vision 2015-25 program and will spend the next five years investigating the Sun’s uncharted polar regions to learn more about how the Sun works.

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New Ring of Dust Discovered in the Inner Solar System

An illustration of the dust rings around the Sun. Image Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith

Discovering new things in space is a regular occurrence. Astronomers keep finding more distant objects in the outer reaches of the Solar System. Worlds like ‘The Goblin,’ ‘FarOut,’ and ‘FarFarOut‘ are stretching the limits of what our Solar System actually is.

But finding new things in the inner Solar System is rare.

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Here’s the First Image of the Sun from the Parker Solar Probe

The Parker Solar Probe's WISPR (Wide-field Imager for Solar Probe) instrument captured this image of a coronal streamer on Nov. 8th, 2018. Coronal streamers are structures of solar material within the Sun's atmosphere, the corona, that usually overlie regions of increased solar activity. The fine structure of the streamer is very clear, with at least two rays visible. The bright object near the center of the image is Mercury, and the dark spots are a result of background correction. Credits: NASA/Naval Research Laboratory/Parker Solar Probe

It’s been 124 days since the Parker Solar Probe was launched, and several weeks since it made the closest approach any spacecraft has ever made to a star. Now, scientists are getting their hands on the data from the close approach. Four researchers at the recent meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C. shared what they hope they can learn from the probe. They hope that data from the Parker Solar Probe will help them answer decades-old question about the Sun, its corona, and the solar wind.

Scientists who study the Sun have been anticipating this for a long time, and the waiting has been worth it.

“Heliophysicists have been waiting more than 60 years for a mission like this to be possible. The solar mysteries we want to solve are waiting in the corona.” – Nicola Fox, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters.

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