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This article was published on December 15, 2021

What NASA hopes to discover from spacecraft that ‘touched’ the sun

Is there life beyond our solar system?

What NASA hopes to discover from spacecraft that ‘touched’ the sun
Thomas Macaulay
Story by

Thomas Macaulay

Writer at Neural by TNW Writer at Neural by TNW

In a historic milestone, a spacecraft has “touched” the sun for the first time.

The NASA probe hasn’t hit the giant star’s surface, but it has entered the mysterious solar atmosphere — known as the corona.

The Parker Solar Probe achieved the feat in April, but scientists have only now confirmed it.

As the Parker Solar Probe passed through the corona on encounter nine, the spacecraft flew by structures called coronal streamers. These structures can be seen as bright features moving upward in the upper images and angled downward in the lower row. Such a view is only possible because the spacecraft flew above and below the streamers inside the corona. Until now, streamers have only been seen from afar. They are visible from Earth during total solar eclipses.
As the probe entered the corona,  it took these images of streams of plasma surrounding the spacecraft.  Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Laboratory

NASA first proposed sending a spacecraft to the sun in 1958, but has only recently had the tech to bring the plans to reality.

A big challenge was building a probe that could survive the 3 million degrees Fahrenheit heat of the corona. This was made possible by advances in thermal engineering, which helped scientists protect Parker behind an 11.43 cm-thick carbon-composite shield.

NOTE: Spacecraft and Sun relative positions adjusted to better show instrument placement.
The probe carries four instrument suites designed to study magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles, and image the solar wind: FIELDS, WISPR, SWEAP, and IS• IS. NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Margaret Brown

The crossing is a triumph of innovation, but the probe wasn’t launched to show off NASA’s tech. The spacecraft is searching for secrets about the sun, our solar system, and the entire universe.

As the Parker Solar Probe ventures closer to the Sun, it’s crossing into uncharted regimes and making new discoveries. This image represents Parker Solar Probe's distances from the Sun for some of these milestones and discoveries.
NASA expects to make new discoveries as the probe gets closer to the sun. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Mary P. Hrybyk-Keith

The Parker Solar Probe was designed to transform our understanding of the sun.

The mission launched in 2018 and is expected to last seven years, during which the spacecraft will complete 24 orbits around the sun. As it braves brutal heat and radiation to venture closer to the star, NASA expects to unearth a stream of new insights:

  • The closest-ever observations of a star.
  • Information about solar wind, which could help spacecraft and astronauts survive future missions. Disturbances in the solar wind also shake Earth’s magnetic field and pump energy into the radiation belts.
  • Data about solar eruptions, which accelerate particles to energies that can be hazardous for astronauts and tech in space.
  • Facts about space weather, which can affect satellites and astronauts.
  • Observations from directly inside the corona, which will help scientists understand why the sun’s atmosphere is hundreds of times hotter than its surface.

The most intriguing insights, however, may be unforeseen.

Our sun is the only star that we can study up close. Parker’s observations of the orb could shed light on stars throughout the universe. It may not discover aliens, but it could offer clues about life beyond our solar system.


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