Parker Solar Probe: 'We're missing something fundamental about the sun'

Pablo Tucker
December 5, 2019

Now, for the first time, NASA's Parker Solar Probe, which has flown faster and closer to the Sun than any other human-made object in history, is slowly unravelling the Sun's mysteries.

Professor Horbury added: "Although Parker Solar Probe will get even more accurate measurements of the young solar wind at its closest approach, it's too close for telescopes, so it won't be able to see what features on the surface of the Sun may be creating the structures of the solar wind". The spacecraft can withstand insanely high temperatures, enabling it to gather unprecedented data on our star and its effects on our planet.

Findings from data collected during the spacecraft's first two encounters with the sun will be published in four papers in Nature on December 4.

The unusual magnetic field reversals called "switchbacks", which whips back on itself until it is pointed nearly directly back at the sun, could be accelerating particles toward Earth, according to the study. "That's something like 15 to 25 times faster than the standard solar models predict, so we're missing something really fundamental in our standard models of the Sun-how it rotates and how the wind escapes-and that's really interesting", said Justin Kasper, a professor of space sciences at the University of MI and the lead author of one of the studies, in a recent statement.

Other recently detailed findings include details about a type of magnetic field event called a 'switchback, ' information about when dust starts to thin out near the Sun (spoiler: it's about 7 million miles away), and findings related to solar energetic particle events, which help shed light on space weather near Earth.

In addition to observing a steady flow of Alfvén waves, the Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons instrument, or SWEAP instrument, also observed a more powerful phenomena. The studies reveal that reversals in the sun's magnetic field lines are responsible for accelerating this wind away from the sun. "These rogue waves are so strong they actually momentarily flipped the direction of the magnetic field". The energised and accelerated particles moving away from the Sun due to the solar wind could affect the global power grid and telecommunications on Earth.

"We can now go look at the surface of the sun and figure out what is launching these waves", he said.

The instrument showed that Alfvén waves get stronger the closer one gets to the sun.

"There were thousands of these rogue waves seen in the ten days we were near the sun".

It has been exciting to see how something we contributed to as part of our degree has made it into one of the most prestigious science journals.

Results from the mission also showed unexpected and unusual changes to the magnetic field. The first results from NASA's Parker Solar Probe, which aims to "touch the sun" have been announced by scientists. The probe eventually will travel within about 4 million miles (6 million km) from the sun's surface, seven times closer than any previous spacecraft.

Stuart Bale, a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author of one of the papers, said: "The first three encounters of the solar probe that we have had so far have been spectacular".

Another surprise, the researchers said, was the dust that peppered the spacecraft repeatedly during each fly-by at perihelion- the point in the orbit where the spacecraft was closest to the Sun.

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