NASA's Parker Solar Probe Just 'Touched' Our Sun, in a World-First

Holy cow.
Grant Currin
A depiction of NASA's probe smashing through the sun's corona.NASA

Ad astra — literally.

For the first time, a spacecraft has "touched the Sun," according to a press release from NASA.  More than three years after its launch, the agency's Parker Solar Probe flew through our star's upper atmosphere, taking measurements of the particles and magnetic fields it encountered. 

The probe, which is the size of a small car, is scheduled to take 21 trips through the sun's corona over the course of seven years, CNN reports.

NASA's groundbreaking flyby lasted several hours

The corona's irregular surface led the probe to fly in and out of the sun's outer atmosphere several times over the course of a few hours, NASA said. At one point, Parker flew deep enough into the atmosphere to encounter large structures called "pseudostreamers," which are visible from Earth during solar eclipses. While inside the pseudostreamers, Parker discovered an eerie calmness. Particles that are ordinarily whipped by solar winds slowed down. NASA compared it to "flying into the eye of a storm." 

The results of the mission were described in a paper published today in Physical Review Letters. Lead Author Justin Kasper said the mission team was "fully expecting that, sooner or later, we would encounter the corona for at least a short duration of time" and that it's "very exciting that we’ve already reached it.”

The probe was subjected to temperatures of nearly 2,500°F (1,377°C). The heat shield protecting the spacecraft and scientific instruments is 4.5 inches thick (11.43 cm) and made from a carbon-composite material. Surprisingly, the corona is hotter than the surface of the sun. Scientists think the atmosphere can reach temperatures of up to 1.8 million °F (1 million °C) its hottest point. The surface is a much cooler 10,340°F (5,727°C).

Parker has been orbiting the sun since soon after its launch in October 2018. The probe uses Venus's gravity to steer its dangerous course around — and through — the star. Future flybys will probably last longer because the corona is growing (before it shrinks again) during the course of the sun's normal 11-year cycle. 

 This was breaking news about NASA's Parker Solar Probe flying into the sun's corona at incredible speeds, and was regularly updated as new information became available.


Correction: An earlier version of the text misidentified "pseudostreamers" as "superstreamers." The article has been updated for accuracy.

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