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  • NASA's Parker Solar Probe

    NASA's Parker Solar Probe | Photo: NASA

Published 4 December 2019
Opinion

The main mission of NASA's Parker Solar Probe is to understand why the most superficial layers of the solar atmosphere can reach temperatures of one million degrees while much deeper inside, on the surface, these are only about 5,000 degrees.

For the first in history, a spaceship has entered the atmosphere of the Sun and has survived to tell about it and data reveals a much more violent and enigmatic star, NASA's Parker Solar Probe gave information about the scientific results of the first two approaches to the star.

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The main mission of the Parker probe is to understand why the most superficial layers of the solar atmosphere can reach temperatures of one million degrees while much deeper inside, on the surface, there are only about 5,000 degrees. To solve this puzzle is essential to understand the behavior of the star and its solar wind, a wave of charged subatomic particles that spits in all directions.

Solar storms can be a threat to astronauts and cause significant damage to power lines and satellite communications.

24 million kilometers of the surface has thus far been explored, six times closer to what the Earth is from the Sun. The ship follows a very plane orbit so that, after getting closer to the sun, it moves away until reaching beyond Venus, the second closest planet to the Sun. It is also armed with a thermal shield that always faces the Sun and is capable of withstanding temperatures of 1,400 degrees Celcius. On the other side of this shell the scientific instruments are kept at about 30 degrees.

The first results of the mission were published today in four studies in the scientific journal Nature. One of them shows that the flow of particles is much faster than what had been observed.

“We have seen that the solar wind advances forming huge waves that, in a matter of minutes, double their speed reaching 150 kilometers per second,” Justin Kasper, a physicist at the University of Michigan and co-author of several of the studies published, explained today. "It's something never seen so far," highlights the researcher.

Solar wind gusts "come in groups and seem to have a coherent structure," Kasper said. According to his team, these patterns may be because the Sun generates a magnetic field that marks the path that the particles follow and accelerates them. This kind of highway is shaped like an s, so that the charged electrons and protons do not travel in a straight line, but are doing their fastest way to Earth.

While scientists have long known that fast solar wind streams flow from coronal holes near the poles, they have not yet conclusively identified the source of the Sun's slow solar wind.

Like the Earth's atmosphere, the plasma of charged particles of the solar corona rotates in the same direction as the star. In theory, the speed of rotation should decrease as the plasma moves away from the surface, but Parker data shows that, in the more superficial layers of the crown, the plasma goes “about 20 times faster than that I should according to predictions,” Kasper stated.

At the moment there are not many answers about the observed phenomena, the physicist acknowledges, but the hope that in the coming years they will be able to understand, even predict.

“We are talking about an area of ​​the solar system that had never been explored so, just for that reason, these studies are a milestone,” Javier Rodríguez, a leading scientist at the Solar Orbiter (SolO) mission of the European Space Agency and a member of the Coordination team with the NASA mission highlighted. In just over a month the Parker will use the gravity of Venus to dive deeper into the Sun's atmosphere.

It will close its orbit until it reaches its maximum closeness within five years, about 6.9 million kilometers from the surface. By then, his observations will have been added by Solar Orbiter, a European mission with many more instruments launched in February next year and will observe the Sun at a distance of about 42 million kilometers.

For Rodriguez, it is too early to know if what Parker observed is the norm or a punctual phenomenon, something that will be confirmed first during the next solar orbits and then with the observations of the Solar Orbiter. The European probe will be the first to observe the poles of the star, invisible from Earth and that are key to understanding the solar cycles of magnetic activity, which last about 11 years. With the data collected by these two ships, we may begin to explain the mystery of our star and the millions of stars like her.

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