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NASA’s Parker Solar Probe flies through powerful explosion from Sun, takes closest-ever plasma observations

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe (PSP) has become the first ever man-made spacecraft to fly through a powerful solar explosion that occurred close to the Sun.

Physicists can now attempt detailed study of solar plasma along with the early stage, structures and evolution of Coronal Mass Ejections (CME).

Launched in August 2018, this mission performed in-situ (on site) observations – the closest ever for two consecutive days during an event of interplanetary CME reported in September last year. The probe has thus provided solar physicists a unique view of the stellar events along with an opportunity to expand studies to understand the evolution of our solar system.

CMEs are violent bouts of gaseous matter and magnetic fields thrown outwards from the Sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona. CMEs eject billions of tons of plasma at speeds ranging from 100 to 3,000 kilometres per second, which can potentially damage anything in its path — from a planet, satellite or spacecraft.

Being central to the solar system, there is still limited knowledge about the Sun and its activities. Life on Earth is primarily supported by the Sun. A powerful plasma or flare, wind originating from this star are all known to have adverse effects on Earth, interfere with the space weather and even hit the satellite-based networks and cripple communication lines.

On September 5, 2022, the probe detected a powerful CME before it entered the extreme hot environment and detected powerful ejections. The onboard Solar Wind Electrons, Alpha and Protons (SWEAP) instrument clocked particles accelerating up to a speed of 1,350 kilometers per second. Scientists also report detection of bidirectional electrons, low proton temperatures, low plasma beta and high alpha particle to proton number density ratios.

Designed and built by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), the front of the probe’s heat shield can withstand extreme high temperatures as it gets the closest to the Sun. Whereas the spacecraft’s interior would remain near room temperature. At its closest approach, the spacecraft will come within about 3.8 million miles of the Sun.

“This CME is the closest ever observed to the Sun. We have never seen an event of this magnitude at this distance,” said Nour Raouafi, project scientist, Parker Solar Probe, in a press release issued by Johns Hopkins APL.

The new study, published earlier this month, in The Astrophysical Journal, has further described how the Probe’s heat shield, radiators and thermal protection system ensured stable temperatures.

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The in-situ polarity data in the study confirmed that eruptions from the Sun affected the global reconfiguration of the Heliospheric Current Sheet (HCS) after a CME event.

Therefore, CMEs may have a key involvement in the evolution of the HCS throughout the solar cycle. We could provide new insights into how CMEs influence the development of young solar wind, the study highlighted.

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For decades now, solar physicists have been interested in deciphering the forces in and around the solar surface that drive these stellar explosions and cause the particles to accelerate.

Anjali Marar works at the Raman Research Institute, Bengaluru.

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