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Parker Solar Probe Findings Surprise Scientists

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NASA
Parker Solar Probe

Last year, the Parker Solar Probe flew closer to the sun than anything ever has before. Now, scientists have released the first results, and there are some big surprises, like solar winds up to twenty five times faster than expected, and previously unknown rogue waves.

But getting the probe close to the sun isn't an easy task, so NASA created a 4-inch thick heat shield that's made of carbon foam. The shield keeps instruments behind it at about room temperature.

"There's lots of testing that the instruments undergo to make sure it can survive both the hot and cold of space," Nicholeen Viall, research scientist with the Solar Physics Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said.  

The closest approach that the probe will have will be four million miles from the surface of the sun. By comparison, the distance from the earth to the sun is 93 million miles. So the probe will get about 4 percent of the distance between the sun and the earth.

Despite being the closest star to earth, because it's so hot, it's also one of the least studied bodies in the earth's solar system, which makes the findings that much more of a breakthrough.

The process of collecting data basically involved sticking a thermometer into material to measure temperature. The probe also measured particles and how fast they came into the spacecraft. 

What the Parker Probe team found is that the probe was seeing solar wind expand out into the solar system, and seeing it up close as it just forms.

"We also get to see explosions, coronal mass ejections and energetic particle events. We call that space weather sometimes. And when those big energy events get to the earth, they cause things like the northern lights, the aurora borealis," Viall said.

"The closer we get to the process and the more of the different kinds of the solar wind we get to see, the more we can understand just the fundamental processes that are going on in our sun," Viall added.

 

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.