National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) groundbreaking Parker Solar Probe has successfully completed its 16th perihelion pass, making another close flyby of the sun and delving into the enigmatic realm of the sun's corona.
During the recent flyby, the spacecraft cruised through the sun's superhot outer atmosphere, known as the corona, where temperatures soar above a staggering 1.8 million degrees Fahrenheit (1 million degrees Celsius).
Equipped with advanced instruments, the Parker Solar Probe continues its mission of exploring the sun's corona by collecting invaluable data while withstanding extreme conditions.
Despite the scorching plasma surrounding it, the probe's instruments are kept at a comfortable 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29.4 degrees Celsius) thanks to its remarkable 4.5-inch (11.4 centimeters) thick heat shield. This shield allows the spacecraft to endure temperatures surpassing 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,400 degrees Celsius) safely.
Launched in August 2018, the Parker Solar Probe was placed in a highly elliptical orbit around the sun. During its perihelion passes, the spacecraft can approach as close as 6 million miles (9.6 million kilometers) to the sun's surface, known as the photosphere.
In its primary mission, the probe is scheduled to make a total of 24 close passes through the photosphere, gathering essential data that will contribute to improving stellar models and forecasting space weather events that could pose risks to satellites and power grids.
Scientists are particularly interested in understanding the sun's corona, which is difficult to study from Earth due to being overshadowed by the photosphere, the bright yellow sphere we see when looking at the sun. However, during total solar eclipses, the corona becomes visible, offering researchers valuable glimpses into its nature.
One of the core puzzles scientists aim to unravel is the disparity in temperature between the various layers of the sun's atmosphere. While the photosphere has an average temperature of approximately 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit (5,800 degrees Celsius), the corona is hundreds of times hotter.
By studying these temperature variations, researchers hope to gain insights into the mechanisms responsible for the sun's coronal heating and its impact on the acceleration of the solar wind—a continuous stream of charged particles emitted by the sun.