NASA spacecraft hopes to catch a solar flare as it flies past the Sun

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe just flew past the Sun, and scientists are extremely excited.

The Parker Solar Probe approached within 5.3 million miles (8.5 million kilometers) of the Sun’s surface Tuesday (September 6) at 2:04 AM EDT (0604 GMT) on its 13th approach with the Sun, or perihelion. And this perihelion occurs when the Sun was extremely active, had an Earth-sized sunspot, and was throwing out solar flares and geomagnetic storms recently. Parker has not yet encountered such activity during a close approach to the Sun, but scientists are hopeful that this time the spacecraft can catch the flare.

“No one has ever flown through a solar event this close to the Sun before,” Parker Solar Probe project scientist Noura Rawafi of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL), who is leading the mission, said in a statement. (will open in a new tab). “The data will be completely new and we will definitely learn a lot from it.”

Related: Trio of solar flares cause radio blackouts and blinding auroras

When Parker launched in 2018, the Sun was at solar minimum, a quiet period in the 11-year solar cycle. But activity is now returning to a solar maximum expected to occur in 2025, and the Sun is already more active than scientists predicted. Luckily, Parker has 11 perhelia left even after the current maneuver, so scientists hope some of them will coincide with future solar events as their frequency increases.

“While the sun was calm, we did great science for three years,” Rauafi said. “But our view of the solar wind and the corona will now be completely different, and we are very curious to see what we learn next.” The corona is the outer atmosphere of the Sun and is the main target of Parker’s observations.

Another factor that makes this perihelion special is that the Sun will have a second set of eyes to provide scientists with even more data. Solar Orbiter, a joint project between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), will observe the Sun at the same time as Parker, but from a distance of 58.5 million miles (94.1 million kilometers) after Solar Orbiter flies past Venus on Saturday September 3 ).

“By combining data from multiple space missions and even ground-based observatories, we can understand the bigger picture,” Rawafi said. “In this case, with both Parker and Solar Orbiter observing the sun from different distances, we would be able to study the evolution of the solar wind by collecting data as it passes one spacecraft and then another.”

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