NASA’s Parker Solar Probe achieved a historic milestone by becoming the first spacecraft to fly through a coronal mass ejection (CME) from the sun and capturing the event on camera. This remarkable video footage shows the probe navigating through the massive solar eruption on September 5, 2022. The spacecraft traveled through the turbulent wake of the plasma wave’s leading edge, known as its shock wave, before emerging on the other side.
Scientists are keen to study this daring mission to gain a deeper understanding of the sun’s enigmatic inner workings and improve their ability to predict solar eruptions that could pose a threat to Earth. They published their findings one year after the event in The Astrophysical Journal.
“This is the closest to the sun we’ve ever observed a CME,” remarked Nour Raouafi, a Parker Solar Probe project scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland. “We’ve never seen an event of this magnitude at this distance.”
Coronal mass ejections are similar to smoke rings and are expelled from sunspots, regions on the sun’s surface characterized by powerful magnetic fields. These magnetic fields form knots and then snap suddenly, launching CMEs at speeds of millions of miles per hour. These ejections sweep up charged particles from the solar wind, creating a large, combined wave front.
The Parker Solar Probe, launched in August 2018, is equipped with a heat shield and radiators designed for close encounters with the sun. During this event, it was flying just 5.7 million miles (9.2 million km) above the sun’s surface when it encountered the CME.
The spacecraft ventured into the leading edge of the solar tidal wave, experiencing the effects of plasma eddies and solar wind as it observed the sun’s activity for two days. Scientists were able to discern three stages in the eruption’s evolution, with the third stage—a trailing wake of slow-moving particles—presenting a particular mystery.
Understanding the mechanisms behind solar eruptions is crucial for safeguarding Earth from severe geomagnetic storms. While Earth’s magnetic field can absorb most glancing blows from CMEs, more powerful geomagnetic storms can distort it, resulting in various detrimental effects such as satellite disruption, damage to electrical systems, and potential internet disruption.
The largest solar storm in modern history, known as the 1859 Carrington Event, released an amount of energy equivalent to approximately 10 billion 1-megaton atomic bombs. It caused widespread disruptions, including fried telegraph systems and brilliant auroras visible as far south as the Caribbean.
Scientists caution that a similar event today could result in trillions of dollars in damages, widespread blackouts, and threats to human life. A solar storm in 1989 already caused a billion-ton gas plume, resulting in a blackout across Quebec.
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