NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has now done what no spacecraft has done before—it has officially touched the Sun. Launched in 2018 to study the Sun’s biggest mysteries, the spacecraft has now grazed the edge of the solar atmosphere and gathered new close-up observations of our star. This is allowing us to see the Sun as never before—including the findings in two new papers, which were presented at AGU, that are helping scientists answer fundamental questions about the Sun. Credit: NASA GSFC/CIL/Brian Monroe
For the first time in history, a spacecraft has touched the Sun. NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has now flown through the Sun’s upper atmosphere – the corona – and sampled particles and magnetic fields there.
The new milestone marks one major step for Parker Solar Probe and one giant leap for solar science. Just as landing on the Moon allowed scientists to understand how it was formed, touching the very stuff the Sun is made of will help scientists uncover critical information about our closest star and its influence on the solar system.
On April 28, 2021, during its eighth flyby of the Sun, Parker Solar Probe encountered the specific magnetic and particle conditions at 18.8 solar radii (8.127 million miles) above the solar surface that told scientists it had crossed the Alfvén critical surface for the first time and finally entered the solar atmosphere.
Parker Solar Probe has now “touched the Sun”, passing through the Sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona for the first time in April 2021. The boundary that marks the edge of the corona is the Alfvén critical surface. Inside that surface (circle at left), plasma is connected to the Sun by waves that travel back and forth to the surface. Beyond it (circle at right), the Sun’s magnetic fields and gravity are too weak to contain the plasma and it becomes the solar wind, racing across the solar system so fast that waves within the wind cannot ever travel fast enough to make it back to the Sun. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ben Smith
As it circles closer to the solar surface, Parker is making new discoveries that other spacecraft were too far away to see, including from within the solar wind – the flow of particles from the Sun that can influence us at Earth. In 2019, Parker discovered that magnetic zig-zag structures in the solar wind, called switchbacks, are plentiful close to the Sun. But how and where they form remained a mystery. Halving the distance to the Sun since then, Parker Solar Probe has now passed close enough to identify one place where they originate: the solar surface.
“Parker Solar Probe “touching the Sun” is a monumental moment for solar science and a truly remarkable feat!”
— Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington
The first passage through the corona – and the promise of more flybys to come – will continue to provide data on phenomena that are impossible to study from afar.
“Flying so close to the Sun, Parker Solar Probe now senses conditions in the magnetically dominated layer of the solar atmosphere – the corona – that we never could before,” said Nour Raouafi, the Parker project scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. “We see evidence of being in the corona in magnetic field data, solar wind data, and visually in images. We can actually see the spacecraft flying through coronal structures that can be observed during a total solar eclipse.”