Parker Solar Probe continues to break records, skims past the sun at 4.51 million miles

The Parker Solar Probe, a remarkable little spacecraft, continues its incredible journey near the sun. On September 27th, it achieved its 17th close approach, getting as close as 7.26 million kilometers (4.51 million miles) to the sun’s photosphere, or surface layer.

This mission has been a series of historic firsts. It boldly flew through a coronal mass ejection (CME) during its 13th approach on September 5, 2022, marking the first time any spacecraft has accomplished such a feat and survived to share the tale.

The probe’s recent accomplishments were made possible by a gravity-assist flyby of Venus in late August. At its closest approach, the Parker Solar Probe was hurtling through space at an astonishing speed of 635,266 kilometers per hour (394,735 miles per hour).

These close encounters and the daring CME passage are just a glimpse into the mission’s many highlights. The plan is for this groundbreaking mission to continue its studies of the sun and the solar environment until mid-2025. Remarkably, despite the extreme conditions it faces, the spacecraft remains in surprisingly good condition. Parker endures temperatures of up to 1,400°C, but its vital instruments are shielded, allowing them to operate at nearly room temperature.

Parker and its solar accomplishments

Parker Solar Probe was launched by solar scientists with a mission to unravel some of the most enigmatic aspects of our sun’s behavior. Its primary objective centers on studying the solar corona, aiming to decipher the source of its intense heat by tracking the energy flow responsible for heating this outermost layer of the solar atmosphere.

Furthermore, scientists are eager to gain insights into the mechanisms behind the acceleration of the solar wind as it emanates from the sun. Given that the sun is predominantly composed of plasma, they seek to fathom its intricate structure and comprehend the intricate magnetic fields that play a pivotal role in guiding the flow of plasma from the sun into the solar wind.

Beyond this, the mission is well-equipped to investigate the dynamics of high-energy particles emitted by the sun, all while deciphering the mechanisms governing their transport through space.

About that coronal mass ejection

On Earth, we’re no strangers to coronal mass ejections (CMEs) as they journey through the solar system. These powerful phenomena propel vast plumes of plasma through space, hurtling at speeds ranging from 100 to 3,000 kilometers per second. While many CMEs pass by without interacting with our planet, when they do, they can wrangle and contort Earth’s magnetic field. The outcomes can vary from captivating displays of the aurora borealis to troublesome disruptions in communication and electrical grids.

Solar physicists have long yearned to predict these spectacular solar storms and decipher the forces propelling CMEs. Specifically, they’ve been keen to unveil the mechanisms that accelerate charged particles within these explosions to such high velocities. The Parker Solar Probe holds the promise of providing critical data about these solar events and the conditions on the sun that lead to their formation.

On September 5, 2022, while positioned on the far side of the sun, Parker made a significant observation. It detected the buildup of a CME, which was occurring approximately 6 billion kilometers above the sun’s surface. Later, the spacecraft traversed the CME’s structure, encountered its leading edge, and ultimately emerged from its midst. This particular CME was exceptionally potent and allowed Parker to collect valuable data concerning the shock wave’s velocity and density. Fortunately, it bypassed Earth, sparing us from potential severe damage to communication systems and widespread power outages.

Nour Raouafi, the Parker Solar Probe project scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, lauded this achievement, stating, “This is the closest to the sun we’ve ever observed a CME. We’ve never seen an event of this magnitude at this distance.”

Parker and the sun

Scientists required a spacecraft capable of venturing remarkably close to the sun, almost flying through its fiery corona, to gather vital scientific data about the corona and CMEs. This is where the Parker Solar Probe takes center stage. Equipped with a heat shield, onboard radiators, and a robust thermal protection system, the probe is well-prepared to withstand the rigors of CMEs and the relentless solar wind. Remarkably, during a CME encounter, it experienced only a minor “torque,” a slight turning action that it swiftly corrected.

For the remainder of this year and into 2024, Parker will continue to embark on close orbits around the sun. In late 2024, it will execute its final Venus flyby, effectively setting the stage for the last three perihelion passages in 2025. In total, scientists have planned for 24 perihelion passages before the mission concludes. The wealth of data it is amassing promises to unveil new realms of knowledge regarding the solar wind and the intricate processes governing its journey through the vastness of the solar system.

Source: Universe Today

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