NASA has released the first image from inside the sun’s atmosphere and it is ground-breaking. The photo was taken by the Parker Solar Probe, which is fitted with Israeli-engineered sensors that are helping capture these first-ever high-resolution images.
The Parker Solar Probe spacecraft is the first human-made object to make it into the sun’s corona – the aura of plasma that surrounds the sun and which includes coronal mass ejects (CMEs) and solar winds. It completed its first encounter over the course of 12 days in late October and November, collecting unprecedented data with four suites of cutting-edge instruments.
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The first set of data began downlinking to Earth on December 7, and a more complete set will be available after the spacecraft undergoes a second flyby in April 2019.
The Parker Solar Probe came within 16.9 million miles from the sun’s surface when the first image was taken on November 8.
The image shows at least two rays of coronal streamers, structures of solar material within the Sun’s atmosphere, seen over the east limb of the sun The bright object near the center of the image is the planet Mercury, and the dark spots are a result of background correction.
The rare image came from the Parker Solar Probe’s WISPR (Wide-field Imager for Solar Probe) instrument, the only imaging instrument aboard the spacecraft, equipped with two coronagraph telescopes incorporating space-qualified CMOS (complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor) sensors built by Israel’s integrated circuit manufacturer TowerJazz, based in Migdal Ha’emek, in collaboration with SRI International, an independent nonprofit research center.
“TowerJazz has been working with SRI for several years to develop custom technology to support US government imaging applications,” Mike Scott, Director of TowerJazz USA Aerospace & Defense, said in a press statement in October. TowerJazz’s CMOS image sensors and pixel technology are used in photography, industrial, medical, automotive and consumer applications, including high-end camera phones and 3D cameras. “We are very pleased to see our teamwork take flight in this exciting endeavor by NASA.”
Unpacking the data
On December 12, NASA researchers gathered at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington to discuss the recent findings, including heliophysics who study the sun and how it affects space near Earth, around other worlds, and throughout the solar system.
“Heliophysicists have been waiting more than 60 years for a mission like this to be possible,” said Nicola Fox, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The solar mysteries we want to solve are waiting in the corona.”
One of those mysteries is why the sun’s corona is so much hotter than its surface. Launched on August 12 in a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the Parker Solar Probe’s mission was the help answer three questions, according to Sarah Frazier of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
“First: How is the sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, heated to temperatures about 300 times higher than the visible surface below? Second — how is the solar wind accelerated so quickly to the high speeds we observe? And finally, how do some of the Sun’s most energetic particles rocket away from the sun at more than half the speed of light?” she wrote.
“Parker Solar Probe is providing us with the measurements essential to understanding solar phenomena that have been puzzling us for decades,” said Nour Raouafi, Parker Solar Probe project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland. “To close the link, local sampling of the solar corona and the young solar wind is needed and Parker Solar Probe is doing just that.”
The “Parker Solar Probe is going to a region we’ve never visited before,” said Terry Kucera, a solar physicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “Meanwhile, from a distance, we can observe the sun’s corona, which is driving the complex environment around Parker Solar Probe.”
The first image revealed by NASA from the Parker Solar Probe was of Earth, captured by the WISPR some 27 million miles (43 million km) from our planet in September. The capture came as the spacecraft did a Venus flyby, making “a close pass at the planet while performing a gravity assist to draw its orbit closer to the sun,” Frazier wrote.
“Though not expected to study the environment around Venus, Parker’s instruments successfully recorded data, giving scientists an early look at what their instruments are capable of in the harsh environment of space,” she added.
Viva Sarah Press contributed to this report.