ANN ARBOR-Our closest-ever look inside the sun's corona has unveiled an unexpectedly chaotic world that includes rogue plasma waves, flipping magnetic fields and distant solar winds under the thrall of the sun's rotation, according to University of MI researchers who play key roles in NASA's Parker Solar Probe mission.
The Parker Solar Probe is a specially crafted vessel created to operate in close proximity to the Sun. The spacecraft can withstand insanely high temperatures, enabling it to gather unprecedented data on our star and its effects on our planet.
The first findings from the mission have been published across four scientific papers in the journal Nature.
Understanding how the solar wind behaves is important to the Navy and Marine Corps because when the winds reach Earth, they can impact Global Positioning System, spacecraft operations, and ground-based power grids. The findings, offering fresh details about how the sun spawns space weather, are reshaping astronomers' understanding of violent solar wind that can hamper satellites and electronics on Earth.
According to NASA, these findings reveal new information about the behaviour of the material and particles that speed away from the Sun, bringing scientists closer to answering fundamental questions about the physics of our star.
Sidling up to the nearest star that humans can reach, the Parker Solar Probe learned new information about two types of major space weather events.
Researchers have already said that the probe's onboard instruments detected "an unexpected series of flips" in the Sun's magnetic field which they described as "strange".
Coronal holes, which are related to sun spots, are areas that are cooler and less dense than the surrounding corona.
The main objective of the mission was to find out the reason behind why the outer surface of the sun, called the Corona is extremely hot. "They carry a tremendous amount of energy".
"So we are missing something fundamental about the Sun and how the solar wind escapes". To our surprise when we got closer to the sun, not only were the little waves stronger but we also saw giant "rogue waves" just like in the ocean.
What happens on the sun is critical to understanding how it shapes the space around us.
"There were thousands of these rogue waves seen in the ten days we were near the sun". This makes it a lot easier for us to compare the initial encounters and to try and connect what we see flying around the spacecraft to specific structures in the Sun's atmosphere. Parker results showed that, closer to the sun, the dust continues to thin out.
"These first results are really exciting, as, whilst there is evidence of these spikes in the magnetic field, their origin and nature is still open for discussion". WISPR is one of four instruments on Parker Solar Probe. That is already closer to the Sun than Mercury, but the spacecraft will get even closer in the future as it travels at more than 213,000 miles per hour, faster than any previous spacecraft.
"The first three encounters of the solar probe that we have had so far have been spectacular", said Stuart Bale, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author of an article about new results.
Over the next six years, the car-sized spacecraft will follow an "ever-closer elliptical orbit", technically "touching" the Sun.