Parker Solar Probe First Findings Presented

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

 

“Our data are spectacular,” said physics professor Stuart Bale of UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory, one of four principal investigators for the instruments aboard the mission.

 

A special made-in-Berkeley suite of scientific instruments called FIELDS is revealing the flaming secrets of our sun, aiding future forecasts of chaotic “space weather.”

At a Wednesday morning NASA press conference, scientists described new findings from the tools aboard the Parker Solar Probe, a Prius-sized spacecraft that’s nearly 90 million miles from home.

The research hints at the likely birthplace of dynamic solar winds, which bath our entire solar system. It describes startling reversals in the sun’s magnetic fields. It detects dust. And it shows that solar winds spin, like children riding on a playground carousel.

Announced today, the project offers a wealth of new physics about a star whose behavior shapes the destiny of Earth and our solar system — and boosts our understanding of the “space weather” that can wreak havoc on our electronics and kill astronauts.

“Our data are spectacular,” said physics professor Stuart Bale of UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory, one of four principal investigators for the instruments aboard the mission.

“What we’re seeing is the large scale magnetic structure of the sun, and on top of that are impulsive magnetic events that we think are originating far below us in the corona — probably responsible for heating the solar wind itself,” he said.

The $1.5 billion probe parked for days above a so-called “coronal hole,” a small cool spot in the sun’s atmosphere, so its instruments could study what was happening on the solar surface below.

It found that “coronal holes” are the likely source of slow solar winds.

Unexpectedly, it also detected a series of flips in the sun’s magnetic fields — dubbed “switchbacks” — as streaming solar winds flowed past the spacecraft. During these periods, the magnetic field suddenly reversed itself by 180 degrees and then, seconds to hours later, flipped back.

“These switchbacks are probably associated with some kind of plasma jets,” Bale said. “My own feeling is that these switchbacks, or jets, are central to the solar wind heating problem.”

Also startling was the microscopic dust that pelted the spacecraft. Orbiting the sun, the dust is likely debris from asteroids or comets that came too close to the sun – and melted.

“We’re surprised at the kind of ferocity of the dust environment in the air heliosphere,” said Bale.

The findings will boost our understanding of “space weather,” which can fry our electric grid, disrupt radio communication, interfere with GPS and endanger astronauts. 

Read the entire Mercury News article here.

 

KQED Science has published an update on 12/12/19.

Last month we posted about the FIELDS instrument

 

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