May 26, 2020

A ship enters the Sun for the first time | Science

For the first time in history a spacecraft has entered the Sun's atmosphere and survived to tell. Today the first scientific results published by the Parker Solar Probe from NASA during its first two approaches to the star. The data reveals a much more violent and enigmatic star than previously thought.

The main mission of the Parker It is to understand why the most superficial layers of the solar atmosphere, the corona, can reach temperatures of one million degrees while much more inside, on the surface, there are only about 5,000 degrees. Solving 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.

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

The thermal shield of the Parker, made of carbon and with a thickness of 11 centimeters and a half.

The thermal shield of the Parker, made of carbon and with a thickness of 11 centimeters and a half.

The first results of the mission are published today in four studies in the scientific journal Nature. One of them It 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,” explains Justin Kasper, a physicist at the University of Michigan and co-author of several of the studies published today. At that speed one can reach Earth in less than two minutes. "It's something never seen so far," highlights the researcher.

Solar wind gusts "come in groups and seem to have a coherent structure," Kasper explains. 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.

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 rotation speed should decrease as the plasma moves away from the surface, but the data from the Parker they show that, in the most superficial layers of the crown, plasma goes "about 20 times faster than they should according to predictions," Kasper explains. 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 represent a milestone,” highlights Javier Rodríguez, a leading scientist at the mission. Solar Orbiter (SolO) of the European Space Agency and member of the coordination team with the NASA mission. In just over a month the probe 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 2020 and will observe the Sun at a distance of about 42 million kilometers. For Rodriguez, it is too early to know if he observed it by the Parker it is the norm or a punctual phenomenon, something that will be confirmed first during the next solar orbits and then with the observations of SolO, which is launched in February 2020. The European probe will be the first to observe the poles of the star, invisible from the Earth and which are key to understanding the solar cycles of magnetic activity that 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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