A NASA spacecraft flew right through one of the most powerful explosions ever recorded as coming from the Sun, capturing stunning footage of the fallout from a distance of just 5.7 million miles, which is about six times closer to our star than Mercury.
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe became the first spacecraft to swoop directly through a coronal mass ejection (CME), a type of eruption from the Sun, on September 5, 2022. As it traveled through this gushing stream of energetic particles, Parker took images and observations that have helped scientists unravel long-standing mysteries about how CMEs interact with dust cast off by celestial objects in the solar system.
“Parker Solar Probe has flown through a stream of particles that erupted from the Sun,” NASA said in a tweet on Monday. “No other spacecraft has done this and it’s letting us see how the Sun’s energy interacts with nearby dust particles that were left over from comets and asteroids!”
Parker has traveled closer to the Sun than any other spacecraft since its launch in 2018, and the daredevil mission will ultimately beat its own record by coming within 3.9 million miles of the Sun’s surface by 2025. Thanks to the protection of its advanced heat shield, the probe was able to show us what it looks like to be in the blast zone of a CME, revealing that interplanetary dust near the Sun is temporarily expelled by these forceful bursts.
“These interactions between CMEs and dust were theorized two decades ago, but had not been observed until Parker Solar Probe viewed a CME act like a vacuum cleaner, clearing the dust out of its path,” said Guillermo Stenborg, an astrophysicist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, and the lead author of a recent study about Parker’s CME observations.
You can tell when Parker is struck by the CME by the sudden spell of darkness in the probe’s imagery, which is caused by the sudden expulsion of reflective dust around it. These observations provide the first close-up look at these interactions, which could help scientists resolve questions about the Sun’s processes and to improve predictions about dangerous space weather around Earth.
Beyond its scientific implications, though, the footage is also a mesmerizing vicarious glimpse of the tempestuous environment around the Sun.
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