NASA officials announced Wednesday that the Parker Solar Probe had passed through the Sun’s corona, or upper atmosphere, becoming the first manmade spacecraft to get that close to the surface of earth’s nearest star. In a statement, officials described the event as “a monumental" moment and a "giant leap for solar science."
Launched on August 12, 2018 and reaching record-setting speeds of 110 miles per second, or 364,621 miles per hour, the Parker Solar Probe entered the corona, roughly 8.1 million miles above the surface of the sun, on April 28. Scientists waited nearly eight months to make the announcement because they needed time to analyze the data sent back to earth from Parker in order to confirm it had indeed entered the corona as planned.
In a statement, NASA scientists said, "The first passage through the corona—and the promise of more flybys to come—will continue to provide data on phenomena that are impossible to study from afar.”
In 2019, for example, the probe detected a previously unknown magnetic zig-zag pattern in the solar wind, which scientists termed “switchbacks.” Now that the probe is much closer to the sun, scientists have been able to determine the surface of the sun may be one place where these switchbacks originate.
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While the surface of the sun has been calculated to be roughly 10,340 degrees Fahrenheit, temperatures in the corona, where the solar winds originate, are much higher, an estimated 1.8 million degrees Fahrenheit. NASA engineers prepared for such extreme temperatures by equipping the probe with a unique heat shield featuring a carbon-foam core, panels constructed from carbon-carbon composite, and reflective paint.
NASA plans to send the probe through the corona several more times, pausing in between to swing around Venus in order to gain gravitational momentum. In December 2024, it is hoped the probe will get as close as four million miles above the surface of the sun, traveling at an estimated 430,000 miles per hour.
In a statement, NASA Associate Administrator for Science Mission Directorate Thomas Zurbuchen said, “Not only does this milestone provide us with deeper insights into our sun's evolution and it's impacts on our solar system, but everything we learn about our own star also teaches us more about stars in the rest of the universe.”
For more on the Parker Solar Probe, see NASA's official project overview and the below video from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center: