Spilling the Sun’s Secrets

You might think you know the Sun: It looks quiet and unchanging. But the Sun has secrets that scientists have been trying to figure out for decades.  

One of our new missions — Parker Solar Probe — is aiming to spill the Sun’s secrets and shed new light on our neighbor in the sky.

Even though it’s 93 million miles away, the Sun is our nearest and best laboratory for understanding the inner workings of stars everywhere. We’ve been spying on the Sun with a fleet of satellites for decades, but we’ve never gotten a close-up of our nearest star.

This summer, Parker Solar Probe is launching into an orbit that will take it far closer to the Sun than any instrument has ever gone. It will fly close enough to touch the Sun, sweeping through the outer atmosphere — the corona — 4 million miles above the surface.

This unique viewpoint will do a lot more than provide gossip on the Sun. Scientists will take measurements to help us understand the Sun’s secrets — including those that can affect Earth.

Parker Solar Probe is equipped with four suites of instruments that will take detailed measurements from within the Sun’s corona, all protected by a special heat shield to keep them safe and cool in the Sun’s ferocious heat.

The corona itself is home to one of the Sun’s biggest secrets: The corona’s mysteriously high temperatures. The corona, a region of the Sun’s outer atmosphere, is hundreds of times hotter than the surface below. That’s counterintuitive, like if you got warmer the farther you walked from a campfire, but scientists don’t yet know why that’s the case.

Some think the excess heat is delivered by electromagnetic waves called Alfvén waves moving outwards from the Sun’s surface. Others think it might be due to nanoflares — bomb-like explosions that occur on the Sun’s surface, similar to the flares we can see with telescopes from Earth, but smaller and much more frequent. Either way, Parker Solar Probe’s measurements direct from this region itself should help us pin down what’s really going on.

We also want to find out what exactly accelerates the solar wind — the Sun’s constant outpouring of material that rushes out at a million miles per hour and fills the Solar System far past the orbit of Pluto. The solar wind can cause space weather when it reaches Earth — triggering things like the aurora, satellite problems, and even, in rare cases, power outages.

We know where the solar wind comes from, and that it gains its speed somewhere in the corona, but the exact mechanism of that acceleration is a mystery. By sampling particles directly at the scene of the crime, scientists hope Parker Solar Probe can help crack this case.

Parker Solar Probe should also help us uncover the secrets of some of the fastest particles from the Sun. Solar energetic particles can reach speeds of more than 50% the speed of light, and they can interfere with satellites with little warning because of how fast they move. We don’t know how they get so fast — but it’s another mystery that should be solved with Parker Solar Probe on the case.  

Parker Solar Probe launches summer 2018 on a seven-year mission to touch the Sun. Keep up with the latest on the Sun at @NASASun on Twitter, and follow along with Parker Solar Probe’s last steps to launch at nasa.gov/solarprobe.

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