'Corona of Chaos' – NASA Releases Wave of Data from Parker Solar Probe's First Mission to Touch the Sun

Monday, 09 December 2019 - 9:50AM
Monday, 09 December 2019 - 9:50AM
'Corona of Chaos' – NASA Releases Wave of Data from Parker Solar Probe's First Mission to Touch the Sun
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YouTube/University of Michigan Engineering

NASA has released the first data from when the Parker Solar Probe first touched the sun in November 2018, with four new research papers published in the journal Nature, according to reports from EarthSky.

The Parker Solar Probe launched in 2018 to collect data on our sun. The mission focuses on two key objectives: studying the corona (or outermost atmospheric layer) which is strangely much hotter than the surface of the sun itself, and studying solar winds in order to better predict events that might impact Earth, like solar flares that can interrupt power and satellites. The little probe completed two close approaches in 2018 and 2019, drawing within 4 million miles of our host star.

"Even with just these first orbits, we've been shocked by how different the corona is when observed up close," said Justin Kasper – a space and climate professor at the University of Michigan and principal investigator for one of Parker's instruments speaking in an official statement.

Check out this video from the University of Michigan, where several of the scientists involved in the study are professors:

The sun's corona is, as suspected, an electromagnetic atmospheric bonfire… With a twist. Scientists were aware of something called "Alfvén waves" in the solar wind – electromagnetic oscillations in plasma and ions – but what Parker uncovered was astonishing.

Kasper explained, "When you get closer to the sun, you start seeing these 'rogue' Alfvén waves that have four times the energy than the regular waves around them…They feature 300,000 mph velocity spikes that are so strong, they actually flip the direction of the magnetic field."

We also learned that the solar wind is so much stronger than we could have anticipated. Solar wind generally travels with the rotation of the sun. Closer to the sun, these solar winds are tightly bound up with its rotation, and scientists expected to see a weaker current farther away from the surface.

"To our great surprise, as we neared the sun, we've already detected large rotational flows-10 to 20 times greater than what standard models of the sun predict," Kasper outlined. "So we are missing something fundamental about the sun, and how the solar wind escapes.

Kasper continued, "This has huge implications. Space weather forecasting will need to account for these flows if we are going to be able to predict whether a coronal mass ejection will strike Earth, or astronauts heading to the moon or Mars."

The Parker Solar Probe will continue to orbit the sun, completing a series of solar approaches and Venus fly-bys until 2025.

"These observations will fundamentally change our understanding of the sun and the solar wind and our ability to forecast space weather events," Kasper concluded.