NASA's Parker Solar Probe just took its closest EVER picture of the sun

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is playing with fire

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NASA’s solar spacecraft, the Parker Solar Probe, has taken a series of unprecedentedly close-up pictures of the sun’s outer atmosphere. Snapped in the sun’s corona, the aura of plasma that surrounds the mega star, the pictures were taken at a remarkable 27 million kilometers from the sun.

Delivering what looks like a Howard Hodgkin painting, the Parker Solar Probe snapped an image of two distinct paths of solar material, identified as streamers of plasma in the corona.

The burnished amber image is punctuated with a small white dot – no, not a technical glitch but rather Jupiter, highly visible from the sun’s vantage point. Meanwhile, the black dots that extend from either side of Jupiter are remnants of background correction. Someone needs to teach those astronauts PhotoShop...

The Parker Solar Probe was initially launched back on 12 August, delivering its “first light” images on 19 September (essentially a health check-up orchestrated by its earthling engineers). October saw its first triumph, with the probe crowned the closest object to the sun we’ve ever seen, as well as the fastest spacecraft in history.

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November, meanwhile, saw Parker get *properly* close to the sun for the first time, swooping within 24 million kilometers from the star’s surface. It is hoped the spacecraft will pass closely by the sun 24 times over its projected seven-year lifespan, with the ultimate aim to get as close as six million kilometres from it.

For context, the last time a spacecraft got this close was the Helios craft, back in the 1970s. Even then, Helios got half as close, while travelling at half the speed – 375,000 kilometers per hour to the Parker Solar Probe’s current rate of travel.

What’s more, Parker’s trajectory is such that, eventually, it will travel so fast as to match the rotation speed of the sun. This means big things for the scientists monitoring the sun, who will have unprecedented access to the same region of the sun for bouts of time. Analysts will then be able to discount any effects the sun’s rotation may have on their data.

It is also hoped the Parker Solar Probe will unlock the sun’s many secrets, including why its corona is so much hotter than its surface. It remains a veritable Icarus until its mission elapses, in 2025.

Image: NASA/Naval Research Laboratory/Parker Solar Probe

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