NASA solar probe becomes the first spacecraft to ‘touch the sun’

Parker Solar Probe visits an extremely hot environment around the sun, known as the corona.

NASA GSFC / CIL / Brian Monroe

After spending 990 days traveling through the solar system and the lightning around Venus and our home star, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has reached the overall goal of its mission: It “touched the sun.”

More specifically, an instrument on board the probe, which was launched on 12 August 2018, scientists back on Earth announced that the spacecraft had crossed a critical threshold and was within the corona of the sun – a furnace of unfathomable proportions where the temperature can reach up to 3 million degrees Fahrenheit.

It was announced at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in New Orleans on Tuesday.

Michael Stevens, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics (CfA), Harvard and the Smithsonian, explained that the probe should cross the Alfvén point, a blurred layer where the sun’s magnetic field keeps the star’s plasma and wind close. An instrument at Parker, developed by CfA, determined that Parker had passed the point three times on April 28 – into the corona and the high-fiving sun.

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Parker is a remarkable probe. It is the fastest laboratory ever built that uses gravity to swing around Venus and the sun and to gather speed across its orbit. It is also the closest man-made object to the sun – its most recent closest approach, in November, put it within 5.3 million miles of the sun. For reference, Mercury is about six times further away, 36 million miles.

There are dangers in enjoying the star. Earlier this year, researchers working with Parker reported that the probe was enduring “plasma explosions” after being bombarded by space dust. Parker has an advanced heat shield that prevents it from overheating, even though the CfA instrument, which believed Parker had touched the sun, is exposed to the elements.

Park solar probe

NASA / Johns Hopkins APL

Although the sun clamp is an important milestone for Parker, there is still much to learn about the sun. Parks will continue to swing past the sun and collect data from the corona about the solar wind and the plasma, unravel some of the solar system’s great star mysteries. By 2023, it will get even closer and come within just 4.9 million miles. As long as it survives these plasma explosions, its closest approach will take place in three years, when it comes within 4.3 million miles.

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