Parker Solar Probe Snaps Hellscape Photo From Inside the Sun's Corona

In August, NASA launched the Parker Solar Probe with a lofty goal: to touch the sun. Okay, “touch” is a bit of an overstatement, but they are getting close. In November, the probe actually got close enough to snap a photo from within a particularly hellish portion of the sun’s atmosphere. The first time you see it, it looks like a hot mess, but if you look more closely, there’s actually a distinguishable feature or two.

Eventually, the Solar Probe will get within 4 million miles of the sun. This photo was taken on November 8 at 1:12 a.m. Eastern about 16.9 million miles from the sun itself, which is within the solar corona — the outermost area of the sun’s atmosphere that’s actually hundreds of times hotter than the sun itself. This is by far the closest a human-made object has ever gotten to the sun, says Russ Howard, Ph.D., the principal investigator behind the Wide-field Imager for Solar Probe (WISPR), the instrument that captured the image. But he also tells Inverse that this photo is really just a taste of way more interesting things to come. In the near future, the probe is going to fly right into the heart of the structure seen in this picture.

NASA helmet streamer
A photo from inside the solar corona, showing Jupiter and a helmet streamer.

If you look closely at the left side of the image, there are actually two distinct “rays,” which Howard explains are extensions of structures formed by the sun’s magnetic field called “helmet streamers.” Helmet streamers are formed along specific boundaries in the sun’s magnetic field and are sometimes carried far out into the solar system by solar winds.

“The inclination of that streamer is actually the plane that the probe is flying through,” Howard says. “So we know that in a few days, or maybe less than a day, we’re going to flying through that structure. We’re so close, so what we’ll be able to do is look at the detailed structure of what’s inside that. It’s really going to be impressive then.”

Getting a deeper look into the structure of these streamers could help illuminate what happens inside the sun’s magnetic field in detail. Occasionally, these streamers can give rise Coronal Mass Ejections, says Therese Kucera, Ph.D., an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Solar Physics Laboratory. These are bursts of activity that can affect earth if they travel far enough, so it’s in our best interest to learn as much as we can about them.

“Coronal Mass Ejections are when you get this big eruption that riffs off the sun and goes out into the solar system,” she explains. “They’re interesting because they can actually affect us here on earth. They interact with our magnetic field and can cause issues with communications systems.”

Howard expects the probe to transmit these detailed images to Earth sometime in April or May. “This is really kind of a teaser,” he says. “It’s a precursor of what we’ll see in a few months when the data come down.”

Media via NASA, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3ngdm6GTbc