April 16, 2024

The fastest spacecraft in our solar system has captured wild footage inside the sun’s atmosphere.

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe — a craft flying much closer to the sun than any previous mission — witnessed massive “vortex-like structures” in our star’s outer atmosphere, called the corona. You can see the unprecedented view below, taken by the probe’s WISPR camera (short for Wide-field Imager for Parker Solar Probe) and recently posted online.

Researchers suspect that the phenomena was caused by a coronal mass ejection (CME) — when the sun ejects a mass of super hot gas (plasma) into space — interacting with the solar wind. The sun’s solar wind is constant, as our medium-sized star emits a steady stream of charged particles.

The new research associated with the footage, published in The Astrophysical Journal, concluded that this find in uncharted realms of the sun has created new opportunities to better understand and predict CMEs, outbursts that can severely harm communications and electrical grids on Earth. Technically, these rare vortices are called “Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities,” or KHI.

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“The direct imaging of extraordinary ephemeral phenomena like KHI with WISPR/PSP is a discovery that opens a new window to better understand CME propagation and their interaction with the ambient solar wind,” Evangelos Paouris, a space weather researcher and member of the WISPR team at George Mason University, said in a statement.

CMEs “can endanger satellites, disrupt communications and navigation technologies, and even knock out power grids on Earth,” NASA explains. Infamously, a potent CME in 1989 knocked out power to millions in Québec, Canada. The CME hit Earth’s magnetic field on March 12 of that year, and then, wrote NASA astronomer Sten Odenwald, “Just after 2:44 a.m. on March 13, the currents found a weakness in the electrical power grid of Québec. In less than two minutes, the entire Québec power grid lost power. During the 12-hour blackout that followed, millions of people suddenly found themselves in dark office buildings and underground pedestrian tunnels, and in stalled elevators.”

An artist’s conception of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe passing through the sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona.
Credit: NASA

The space agency’s Parker Solar Probe will continue its speeding dives into the sun’s corona. To withstand the heat, it’s fortified with a 4.5-inch-thick carbon heat shield that’s pointed at the sun. The shield itself heats up to some 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, but just a couple of feet behind the shield, the environs are surprisingly mild.

Later this year, the spacecraft will reach a whopping 430,000 miles per hour.

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