By Tim Binnall
A history-making spacecraft that sweeps through the solar atmosphere has reportedly provided scientists with a bevy of new insights into the nature of the sun. NASA's Parker Solar Probe launched in November of 2018 and is designed to fly through the outer atmosphere of our proverbial home star, known as the corona, around twice a year. By reaching a distance of 15 million miles away from the surface of the sun, the probe has provided the closest look at the solar atmosphere of any craft in history, smashing the previous record of 26.5 million miles.
Equipped with four sophisticated instruments and a thick shield to protect it from the harsh conditions of the corona, the probe has been able to collect a slew of previously unobtainable information on the sun, specifically the mysterious discharge of particles known as 'solar wind.' Some of the findings from the craft's first three missions were revealed this week via four scientific papers published by astronomers. "The complexity was mind-blowing when we first started looking at the data," one of the lead scientists working on the project said of the probe's insights into solar winds.
One of the many breakthroughs that came by way of the solar probe is that scientists were able to identify the source of what they call 'slow' solar winds. The origins of these waves of plasma and particles had been a mystery until the craft was able to show that they are coming from small coronal holes around the sun's equator. Remarkably, astronomers were also able to detect dramatic changes in the magnetic field of solar winds wherein they flipped 180 degrees for a few seconds or minutes for reasons which have yet to be explained.
Additionally, observations from the craft seemingly confirmed a long-postulated theory that space dust turns into a gas as it gets closer to the sun due to the star's tremendous heat. The probe was able to detect a thinning of the material at around 7 million miles away from the sun and what appears to be a 'dust-free zone' at somewhere around 4 million miles from the surface of the star. Amazingly, the craft may eventually enter that region in the future as the solar probe is designed to make increasingly closer sweeps through the sun's atmosphere until it reaches that point on its final mission.