NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has become the first spacecraft to fly through a Coronal Mass Eruption (CME) and capture the entire exciting adventure on camera. The stunning video of the event shows the spacecraft as it passes through just before the Sun’s massive eruption on September 5, 2022.
By studying the Parker probe’s daring achievement, scientists are piecing together more pieces of the puzzle of the Sun’s mysterious internal dynamics to better predict Earth-threatening solar flares. They published their findings exactly one year later on September 5, 2023 Journal of Astrophysics published
According to Live ScienceParker Solar Probe Project Scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Noor Reofi, described Parker’s flyby through the coronal mass ejection as the closest human observation of this solar event. “We have never seen an event of this magnitude from this distance,” he said.
Solar coronal mass ejection events are smoke ring-like eruptions that emerge from sunspots. These spots are regions of the Sun’s surface where powerful magnetic fields are generated by streams of charged particles. After launch, CMEs travel through space at millions of kilometers per hour, dragging charged particles from the solar wind to form a giant composite wave front.
The Parker probe was launched towards the Sun in August 2018. This spacecraft is equipped with a heat shield and radiator to protect itself during close encounters with the sun. The probe was flying just 5.6 million miles (9.2 million kilometers) from the Sun’s surface when the Parker Solar Probe observed the eruption.
Parker spent two days observing the CME, allowing physicists to study the evolution of the event in unprecedented detail. Scientists observed three stages of eruption evolution. The first two stages, including the shock wave and solar plasma, followed by the solar wind, were already observed; But the third stage, which involves a trail of slow particles, confused them.
“You try simplified models to explain certain aspects of the event,” study lead author Orlando Romeo, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a statement. But when you’re this close to the Sun, none of those models can explain everything. “We’re still not sure exactly what’s going on there.”
Discovering how solar flares work is critical to protecting our planet from severe geomagnetic storms. Although the Earth’s magnetic field can absorb most CME eruptions, more intense storms can bend it, knocking satellites out of orbit, knocking out electrical systems and potentially crippling the Internet.
The largest solar storm in modern times was the Carrington event of 1859, which released one megaton of energy, roughly equivalent to 10 billion atomic bombs. After the storm hit Earth, a powerful stream of solar particles knocked out telegraph systems around the world, causing auroras brighter than a full moon to appear as far south as the Caribbean.
Scientists warn that if a similar event were to occur today, trillions of dollars in damage would be caused, widespread blackouts would occur, and thousands of lives would be at risk.