NASA’s Parker Probe: Journey Through a Solar Flare
An unprecedented achievement
Parker Probe and its mission
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has achieved extraordinary results in its first five years of operations: it is the closest object to our star, the fastest object ever created by humans, and the first mission to actually “touch” the Sun. Now, the mission has reached another milestone in its journey to the Sun: it is the first spacecraft to fly through a powerful solar flare.
As detailed in a study published September 5 in The Astrophysical Journal, exactly one year after the event, the Parker Solar Probe was subjected to a coronal mass ejection (CME). These explosions eject magnetic fields and billions of tons of plasma at speeds between 100 and 3,000 kilometers per second. When these projectiles are directed toward Earth, they can generate aurora borealis and, if powerful enough, can wreak havoc on satellite electronics and power grids on Earth.
Record on record
The Parker Probe set two records at once, approaching and surpassing the fastest speed ever achieved near the Sun. On September 27, it flew just 7.2 million kilometers from our dynamic star, traveling at a speed of 635,000 kilometers per hour.
Journey through EMC
While cruising on the far side of the Sun 9.2 million kilometers from the Sun’s surface (36.8 million kilometers closer than Mercury is to the Sun), the Parker Solar Probe detected remote electromagnetic interference for the first time before passing through it. Then, it entered the structure, passed through the wake of the shock wave, and finally came out the other side. In all, he spent nearly two days observing electromagnetic compatibility, providing physicists with an unprecedented view of these stellar events and the opportunity to study them in the early stages of their development.
The EMC of September 5, 2022 was extreme. As the Parker Probe passed behind the shock wave, an array of detectors of electrons, alpha particles and protons from the solar wind recorded particle acceleration of up to 1,350 kilometers per second. If it were heading towards Earth, its strength would be close to that of the Carrington Event, an 1859 solar storm considered to be the most powerful storm ever recorded to hit Earth.
Parker probe resistance
Inaccessible heat shield
Despite the strength of the eruption, the Parker Probe remained calm. The heat shield, radiators and thermal protection system ensure that the probe’s temperatures do not change. Its autonomous system activated mitigation plans to ensure programming ran without interruption. In fact, the only effect the EMC had on the nacelle was a slight torque, or a small deflection that was quickly corrected.
The physics behind EMC
Physicists are interested in deciphering the forces that drive these stellar explosions and accelerate particles to these amazing speeds. The only way to do this was to fly through one of them toward the Sun, and the science team determined the chronology of events and Parker’s position during electromagnetic compatibility by comparing measurements collected inside and outside of it, including images taken by the Sun-Earth Coronal Contact and the Heliospheric Research Instrument ( SECCHI) aboard NASA’s STEREO spacecraft.
As the Sun approaches the peak of its activity cycle, CMEs should occur more frequently. With any luck, the Parker Solar Probe team hopes to go through several ejections as it approaches the sun.
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