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Nasa announces first results from Parker Solar Probe spacecraft after it was sent to ‘touch the sun’

Surprising new results include strange flipping of star’s magnetic field


Nasa has revealed the first findings from a pioneering spacecraft sent to “touch the Sun”.

The Parker Solar Probe has flown closer than ever before to our Sun and has now sent back its first data from the mission.

The car-sized spacecraft left Earth last summer and is now about 15 million miles away from the Sun.

Scientists hope that its time there can reveal the mysteries that keep us alive, such as why the corona on the outer surface is so hot.
Now the first of those findings have been published in a series of papers in the journal Nature.

The researchers have revealed how the magnetic field of the Sun is dramatically and quickly flipping, and then reversing back again, sometimes straight away.

 Researchers think that strange magnetic behaviour could be flinging solar winds towards Earth. Scientists still don’t understand how that weather is produced – which is dangerous given that it could destroy large parts of our infrastructure.

“There was a major space weather event in 1859 that blew out telegraph networks on Earth and one in 1972 that set off naval mines in North Vietnam, just from the electrical currents generated by the solar storm,” said Stuart Bale, a University of California, Berkeley, professor of physics and lead author of an article about new results from the probe’s FIELDS experiment.

Previous missions have shown that solar wind increases its speed as it leaves the corona, but it has not been clear how this happens.

 In one of the new papers, scientists report that changes in the Sun’s magnetic fields increase the speed of the solar wind flowing away from the star.

Another paper focuses on the source of so-called “slow” solar wind – with speeds less than 310 miles per second – which until now has been poorly understood.

 The researchers found that slow wind originates in holes in the corona found near the equator.

These holes, the scientists say, are cooler and less dense than the surrounding corona.

Stuart Bale, a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author of one of the papers, said: “The first three encounters of the solar probe that we have had so far have been spectacular.

 “We can see the magnetic structure of the corona, which tells us that the solar wind is emerging from small coronal holes; we see impulsive activity, large jets or switchbacks which we think are related to the origin of the solar wind; we see instability – the gas itself is unstable and is generating waves on its own.”

Understanding more about solar activity could help scientists forecast the large eruptions from the Sun that pose a threat to satellite and communications systems.

Over the next five years, the probe will continue to make new discoveries as it moves closer to the Sun, eventually making its closest approach in the year 2024, as it flies 3.9 million miles above the solar surface.

 The last time a man-made object came close to the star’s surface was in 1976 when Helios 2 achieved perihelion, the point of the orbit at which it was closest to the Sun, at 27 million miles.

During its scorching journey, the probe will orbit the Sun 24 times while being subjected to extreme heat and radiation, with temperatures expected to reach 1,377C, nearly hot enough to melt steel.

As it gets closer to the Sun, the probe is expected to hurtle around the star at 430,000 miles an hour, which will make it faster than any spacecraft in history.

The Independent

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