In a pioneering achievement, the Parker Solar Probe has just snapped its first photo from inside the sun’s atmosphere.
In order to do so, the valiant spacecraft ventured closer to the sun than any man-made craft before it. Unveiled by NASA on December 12 — exactly four months after the probe launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station — the incredible photo reveals what it looks like to peer through the sun’s fiery atmosphere.
The spectacular image captures a structure known as a coronal streamer, which essentially is an ejection of solar material that usually occurs in very active regions within the sun’s atmosphere.
“The fine structure of the streamer is very clear, with at least two rays visible,” state NASA officials, adding that the bright spot imaged underneath the streamer is the gas giant Jupiter. Meanwhile, the dark spots seen next to Jupiter are artifacts of background correction.
According to the space agency, the coronal streamer was photographed over the east limb of the sun, from a distance of about 16.9 million miles away. That’s closer than any mission has ever gotten to the sun — or any other star, for that matter.
As the Inquisitr previously reported, the Parker Solar Probe set the record for closest spacecraft to the sun on October 29, when it got closer than 26.55 million miles from the sun’s surface. With this new photograph of the sun’s atmosphere, the intrepid spacecraft has just beaten its own record.
ICYMI: We have a new view of the Sun's atmosphere, the corona, from our #ParkerSolarProbe mission. This image was captured on Nov. 8, 2018, when the spacecraft was just 16.9 million miles from our star. ????????☀️ https://t.co/kec0t4mey5 pic.twitter.com/b2fexj9XNa— NASA Sun & Space (@NASASun) December 12, 2018
The awe-inspiring photo was captured by the spacecraft’s Wide-field Imager for Solar Probe (WISPR) instrument on November 8 — three days after the probe reached its first perihelion, or closest approach to the sun, per a previous report from the Inquisitr. Both momentous feats were achieved during the mission’s first solar encounter, which unfolded between October 31 and November 11.
During that time, the Parker Solar Probe zipped through the outer layer of the sun’s atmosphere — called the solar corona — “collecting unprecedented data with four suites of cutting-edge instruments.” Some of this data, the new photo included, was downlinked on December 7. The rest of the data set will be radioed back to Earth next year, after the probe has its second close encounter with the sun — scheduled to take place in April.
“We don’t know what to expect so close to the sun until we get the data, and we’ll probably see some new phenomena,” said Nour Raouafi, Parker Solar Probe project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab. “Parker is an exploration mission — the potential for new discoveries is huge.”
“Heliophysicists have been waiting more than 60 years for a mission like this to be possible,” said Nicola Fox, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The solar mysteries we want to solve are waiting in the corona.”
The sun’s atmosphere is an aura of plasma that surrounds the sun, stretching for millions of miles into outer space. In short, it is an ultra-hot cosmic oven, as noted by CNet. It is also the source of the solar wind — an outflow of charged particles that originates in the corona and floods the entire solar system, enveloping all of the planets and producing space weather effects, both on Earth and on other worlds.
The main objective of the Parker Solar Probe is to study the corona — and to find out why it is so much hotter than the sun’s visible surface. At the same time, the mission is tasked with investigating the solar wind’s incredible velocity, and unlocking the mystery of how some of these particles can dart through space at more than half the speed of light.
“Parker Solar Probe is providing us with the measurements essential to understanding solar phenomena that have been puzzling us for decades,” said Raouafi. “To close the link, local sampling of the solar corona and the young solar wind is needed and Parker Solar Probe is doing just that.”
This first-ever photo from inside the solar corona was released to the public during a press conference held yesterday at the 2018 American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C.