What We Just Learned About the Sun from the Fastest Spacecraft Ever

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Lorenzo von Matterhorn
Jan 31, 2009
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What We Just Learned About the Sun from the Fastest Spacecraft Ever
The first data from this probe's encounter with the sun is incredibly illuminating—and pretty damn puzzling.
5 Dec 2019

Parker Solar Probe has kissed the sun, and now its telling us everything.

In just one short year, the probe’s initial observations have already unraveled decades-long mysteries about our home star. The probe has revealed insight into the formation and structure of solar winds, the connection between coronal mass ejections and energized particles, and the shape of the sun’s twisting magnetic field. These first scientific measurements were reported in a series of four papers published today in the journal Nature.

The probe, which launched in August 2018, has since zipped two times closer to the sun than any previous spacecraft in history and has broken the spacecraft speed record, too. It's the fastest ever. At its closest, a point called perihelion, Parker was just 15 million miles away from the sun’s surface, according to a NASA press release. The probe was traveling approximately 213,200 miles per hour. During this flyby, mission scientists and engineers turned on Parker’s instruments far sooner than in previous flights. Now, it’s time to crunch the data.

The Parker Solar Probe still has a long way to go — 21 more flybys, to be exact — before it completes its mission. Scientists say the mission could reveal the sun’s long-held secrets. For instance, the mission may reveal why the sun’s pulsating corona, a twisting mass of plasma, is so much hotter than its surface. Researchers are also hoping Parker will provide insight into the mechanisms that propel solar winds and why the sun’s magnetic field is so chaotic.