Parker Solar Probe captures first image from within the atmosphere of the sun

NASA has shared a first image from inside the atmosphere of the sun, taken by the Parker Solar Probe. Last month the probe made the closest ever approach to a star, gathering data which scientists have been working on and have released to the public this week.

The probe skimmed past the surface of the sun on a solar encounter phase which ran from October 31 to November 11, reaching a record-breaking speed of 213,200 miles per hour. Coming within 15 million miles of the sun’s surface, the probe may encounter extreme temperatures of up to 2,500°F on its heat shield, which is turned towards the sun to protect the instruments inside.

The probe captured this stunning image from within the sun’s atmosphere, showing a coronal streamer — a structure of solar material that lies over regions of the sun where there is increased solar activity. You can see Mercury as the bright dot near the center of the image, while the darker spots nearby are a result of background correction. This image was taken a mere 16.9 million miles from the surface of the sun:

NASA/Naval Research Laboratory/Parker Solar Probe

The mission is just beginning for the Parker Solar Probe — it will complete a total of 24 orbits around the sun over its seven year mission. During the mission the probe will encounter the planet Venus seven times, using a gravity assist maneuver to slow the speed of the probe so that it can get closer to the sun and gather more data. At its closest, the probe should pass within just 3.8 million miles of the sun. The observations gathered from within the corona of the sun will be used to examine questions like why it is that the temperature in the sun’s atmosphere can be so much higher than the temperature on the sun’s surface.

Nour Raouafi, a scientist from the Parker Solar Probe project at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, said that there were a lot of unknowns when working with a probe venturing into extreme conditions: “We don’t know what to expect so close to the sun until we get the data, and we’ll probably see some new phenomena,” he said. “Parker is an exploration mission — the potential for new discoveries is huge.”

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