A little over a year ago, and about 150 million kilometers (93 million miles) from where you’re currently reading this, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe quietly made history by safely flying through one of the most powerful coronal mass ejections (CMEs) ever recorded. Now that researchers have had time to review the data, amateur space nerds like ourselves are finally getting details about the probe’s fiery flight.
Launched in August 2018, the Parker Solar Probe was built to get up close and personal with our local star. Just two months after liftoff, it had already beaten the record for closest approach to the Sun by a spacecraft. The probe, with its distinctive solar shield, has come within 8.5 million kilometers (5.3 million miles) of its surface, a record that it’s set to break as its highly elliptical orbit tightens.
As clearly visible in the video below, the Parker probe flew directly into the erupting CME on September the 5th of 2022, and didn’t get fully clear of the plasma for a few days. During that time, researchers say it observed something that had previously only been theorized — the interaction between a CME and the swirling dust and debris that fills our solar system.
According to the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), the blast that Parker flew through managed to displace this slurry of cosmic bric a brac out to approximately 9.6 million km (6 million miles), though the void it created was nearly instantly refilled. The researchers say that better understanding how a CME propagates through the interplanetary medium could help us better predict and track potentially dangerous space weather.
It’s been a busy year for the Parker Solar Probe. Back in June it announced that data from the craft was improving our understanding of high-speed solar winds. With the spacecraft set to move closer and closer to the Sun over the next two years, we’re willing to bet this isn’t the last discovery to come from this fascinating mission.
Although experimental verification is at the heart of the scientific method, there is quite a difficulty range when it comes to setting up such an experiment. Testing what underlies the formation of the fast solar winds that are ejected from coronal holes in the Sun’s corona is one of these tricky experimental setups. Yet it would seem that we now have our answer, with a newly published paper in Nature by S. D. Bale and colleagues detailing what we learned courtesy of the Parker Solar Probe (PSP), which has been on its way to the Sun since it was launched in August of 2018 from Earth.
The Sun’s solar wind is the name for a stream of charged particles which are ejected from the Sun’s corona, with generally two types being distinguished: slow and fast solar winds. The former type appears to originate from the Sun’s equatorial belt and gently saunters away from the Sun at a mere 300 – 500 km/s with a balmy temperature of 100 MK.
The fast solar wind originates from coronal holes, which are temporary regions of cooler, less dense plasma within the corona. These coronal holes are notable for being regions where the Sun’s magnetic field extends into interplanetary space as an open field, along which the charged particles of the corona can escape the Sun’s gravitational field.
These properties of coronal holes allow the resulting stream to travel at speeds around 750 km/s and a blistering 800 MK. What was unclear up till this point was exactly what powers the acceleration of the plasma. It was postulated that the source could be wave heating, as well as interchange reconnection, but with the PSP now close enough to perform the relevant measurements, the evidence points to the latter.
Essentially, interchange reconnection is the reestablishing of a coronal hole’s field lines after interaction with convection cells on the Sun’s photosphere. These convection cells draw the magnetic field into a kind of funnel after which the field lines reestablish themselves, which results in the ejection of hotter plasma than with the slow solar wind. Courtesy of the PSP’s measurements, measured fast solar winds could be matched with coronal holes, along with the magnetic fields. This gives us the clearest picture yet of how this phenomenon works, and how we might be able to predict it.
(Heading image: Diagram of the Sun. (Credit: Kelvinsong) )