NASA’s Solar Spacecraft Snaps First Image from Inside Sun’s Atmosphere

NASA’s Solar Spacecraft Snaps First Image from Inside Sun’s Atmosphere

NASA released a historic image, captured from within the corona of the Sun, showing two jets of solar material and Mercury.

The Parker Solar Probe of NASA was launched on 12th August 2018 from Cape Canaveral. A Delta IV Heavy rocket carried the probe towards the sun of our solar system. The Applied Physics Laboratory of the John Hopkins University designed and built this spacecraft with the intentions of exploring the outer corona of the sun. It became the first NASA spacecraft which was named after a living person, Eugene Parker.

In addition to all the researching instruments, it carries a memory card with names of more than 1.1 million people on it. The card also contains an image of Parker and a copy of his scientific paper published in 1958. If all goes well, this probe will reach within 6.9 million kilometers from the center of the sun and will be moving at a pace of 690,000 km/h at the closest approach.

An amount of US$ 1.5 billion was spent on this project and the latest photo released by NASA shows that it was worth all of that. The solar spacecraft of NASA provided the first image from inside the sun (virtually). The probe sped through the ultra-hot cosmic oven of the atmosphere around the sun (corona) over a period of 12 days to manage this absolute stunner of an image. The Wide-Field Imager for Solar Probe (WISPR) was used to capture this photo when the probe was merely at a distance of 16.9 million miles from the central star of our solar system.

You can clearly see that two distinct jets of solar material are emerging from the left of the image. The scientific name of these jets is ‘Coronal Streamers’. The bright spot in the image is Mercury while ‘Background Correction’ is responsible for the black spots. Authorities at NASA released this image during a meeting of the American Geophysical Union as they discussed the prospects they hope to achieve from the Parker Solar Probe. They told the world that the first data set started coming back to Earth on 7th of December but it won’t be complete until April 2019.

The systems of the Parker Solar Probe have a ‘Solar Shield’ to protect them from extreme radiation and heat experienced near the sun. It is hexagonal in shape and is mounted on the sun-facing side of the spacecraft. It is made of ‘Reinforced Carbon-Carbon Composite’ to withstand temperatures in the range of 1370o C. The application of a reflective alumina layer helps to minimize the absorption.

All the scientific instruments are located in the central part of the shield to make sure that direct radiation from the sun doesn’t affect them at all. Due to a delay of 8 minutes in radio communication, the probe is equipped with 4 light sensors to reposition itself as soon as first traces of direct sunlight are detected coming from the limits of the solar shield. Nicky Fox, the Project Scientist of the Parker Solar Probe, described the spacecraft in the following words:

The most autonomous spacecraft that has ever flown.”

The spacecraft has already been quite busy in the first few months of its journey and things are only going to get tougher with time. The first images from the probe were transferred to the mission team on 19th September. This allowed the scientists to ensure that all the instruments are up and running. After that, it broke a couple of long-lasting records in October as it became the fastest spacecraft in history and the closest man-made object to the Sun.

According to researchers, the element of speed is critical for this mission because the speed of the probe must eventually match the rotation of the sun to examine the star. Scientists are quite hopeful that they will be able to unveil some of the biggest secrets of our sun, like the reason why the corona is so much hotter than the surface, through the advanced instruments of Parker Solar Probe.

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