NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has achieved a remarkable feat by flying through a massive solar eruption and capturing stunning footage of the event. The spacecraft, which is designed to study the sun’s behavior and atmosphere, endured temperatures and radiation levels that would have destroyed most other probes.
What is a coronal mass ejection?
A coronal mass ejection, or CME, is a powerful explosion of plasma from the sun’s surface. Plasma is a super hot gas that consists of charged particles, such as electrons and protons. When a CME occurs, it releases a huge amount of energy and magnetic fields into space, creating a shock wave that can travel at speeds of up to several million miles per hour.
CMEs can have various effects on Earth and other planets, depending on their direction and intensity. Some of these effects include:
- Auroras: The colorful lights that appear in the sky near the poles are caused by the interaction of solar particles and Earth’s magnetic field. CMEs can enhance the brightness and frequency of auroras, making them visible in lower latitudes as well.
- Space weather: CMEs can disrupt the communication and navigation systems of satellites and spacecraft, as well as the power grids and electronic devices on Earth. They can also pose a radiation hazard to astronauts and passengers on high-altitude flights.
- Solar system evolution: CMEs can shape the evolution of the solar system by eroding the atmospheres of planets and moons, especially those without strong magnetic fields. For example, Mars may have lost most of its atmosphere and water due to the impact of CMEs over billions of years.
How did the Parker Solar Probe survive the CME?
The Parker Solar Probe is a NASA mission that was launched in 2018 with the aim of exploring the sun’s corona, the outermost layer of its atmosphere. The probe is equipped with a heat shield that can withstand temperatures of up to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, as well as instruments that can measure the solar wind, magnetic fields, and plasma waves.
In September 2022, the probe encountered one of the most powerful CMEs ever recorded, which had a temperature of over 100 million degrees Celsius, nearly seven times hotter than the sun’s core. The probe flew through the CME for about two days, becoming the first spacecraft to do so near the sun. It also captured footage of the event, which was recently released by NASA and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
The footage shows the CME erupting from the left side of the screen, where the sun is located, and then hitting the probe with a blast of plasma and magnetic fields. The probe was able to survive the CME thanks to its heat shield, which protected it from the direct exposure to the sun. The probe also used its instruments to collect valuable data on the CME’s properties and effects, which will help scientists understand the sun’s behavior and its impact on the solar system.
Why is the Parker Solar Probe important?
The Parker Solar Probe is a groundbreaking mission that is advancing our knowledge of the sun and its influence on our planet and beyond. The probe is the closest spacecraft to the sun, reaching distances of about 4 million miles from its surface, or about 95% of the way to the sun’s corona. The probe is also the fastest spacecraft ever, reaching speeds of over 200,000 miles per hour, or about 0.2% of the speed of light.
The probe is expected to complete 24 orbits around the sun by 2025, each time getting closer and faster. During its journey, the probe will perform several scientific objectives, such as:
- Investigating the origin and acceleration of the solar wind, the stream of charged particles that flows from the sun and affects the entire solar system.
- Exploring the structure and dynamics of the sun’s magnetic field, which controls the movement and heating of the plasma in the corona and the solar wind.
- Testing the theories of solar physics and plasma physics, which are essential for understanding the nature and behavior of stars and other astrophysical phenomena.
The Parker Solar Probe is a remarkable example of human ingenuity and curiosity, as well as a testament to the resilience and durability of technology. The probe is not only surviving the harsh conditions of the sun, but also revealing its secrets and mysteries.