Scientists yesterday announced that the Parker Solar Probe successfully entered the Sun’s corona for the first time during its April 2021 close fly-by.
More information here, including some excellent short movies made from images created by Parker’s instruments.
The top edge of the corona is dubbed the Alfvén surface, and Parker’s passage across that boundary three different times during the April ’21 fly-by revealed it to be a sharp boundary that also has a great deal of topography. From the second link:
The first time Parker passed the Alfvén surface was the longest; it flew through the atmosphere for about five hours. Even as it continued flying toward the Sun, though, it popped back out, only to submerge again more deeply when it was at its closest approach — but briefly, that time exiting after just half an hour. Then, on its way outward, the spacecraft once again skimmed beneath the surface for a few hours.
“[The Alfvén surface] has to be wrinkly,” Kasper says. “It’s not fuzzy — it’s well-defined while we’re under it — but the surface has some structure to it.” So while the probe sees a smooth change in conditions while crossing the boundary, where the boundary is can change. The reason for this wrinkly surface is still an open question, though the researchers suspect the crossing over a pseudostreamer lower in the corona pushed the boundary out to enable the first crossing.
What’s clear is that inside the Sun’s atmosphere, conditions are different than just outside. Parker saw plasma waves moving back and forth instead of flowing outward. That difference was visible not just to the SWEAP and FIELDS instruments, which measure particles and electric and magnetic fields, respectively, but also to the probe’s WISPR imager.
The Parker science team also indicated that the preliminary data from the probe’s next two fly-bys — the most recent in November that was the closest yet — suggest it passed through the corona then as well.
One of the biggest unsolved mysteries about the Sun’s corona is that it appears to have a temperature in the millions of degrees, far hotter than the Sun’s surface below, something that is counter-intuitive. The expectation was that the atmosphere would be cooler than the surface. Finding out why the corona is hotter is one of the main science goals of Parker. It appears the probe is finally gathering data that might help solve that mystery.
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