Parker Solar Probe’s first discoveries: Odd phenomena in space weather, solar wind

December 5, 2019

Last summer, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe split the predawn skies in a blaze of light as it headed closer to the sun than any other spacecraft. Named for pioneering University of Chicago astrophysicist Eugene Parker, the probe has now made three of its 24 planned passes through the sun’s corona—enough for scientists to announce their first discoveries. 

In four papers published Dec. 4 in Nature, researchers describe strange space phenomena and a flood of new data that will help us understand everything from the nature of stars to improving our forecasting of solar storms that can affect electronics on Earth. 

Sidling up to the nearest star that humans can reach, the Parker Solar Probe learned new information about two types of major space weather events. It also saw the first signs of the zone around the sun where cosmic dust disappears—predicted decades ago, but never seen—as well as an entirely new phenomenon: bizarre “switchbacks” in the solar wind that flows off the surface of the sun. Scientists said it will dramatically change our theories of the corona and solar wind.

Scientists are eager to learn more about the the solar wind—a flow of charged particles off the surface of the sun which radically affects the Earth and the entire solar system, which University of Chicago Professor Emeritus Eugene Parker first proposed in 1958. NASA named the solar mission after the famed astrophysicist in 2017.

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