In a historic milestone, a spaceship has “touched” the sun for the first time.
NASA’s probe has not reached the surface of the giant star, but has entered the mysterious solar atmosphere, known as the corona.
The Parker solar probe accomplished the feat in April, but scientists have only confirmed it now.
NASA first proposed sending a spacecraft into the sun in 1958, but has only recently had the technology to make the plans come true.
One big challenge was building a probe that could survive the 3 million-degree Fahrenheit heat from the corona. This was made possible by advances in thermal engineering, which helped scientists protect Parker behind a 4-inch-thick carbon composite shield.
The crossover is a triumph of innovation, but the probe was not launched to showcase NASA technology. The spacecraft is searching for secrets about the sun, our solar system, and the entire universe.
The Parker Solar Probe was designed to transform our understanding of the sun.
The mission launched in 2018 and is expected to last seven years, during which the spacecraft will complete 24 orbits around the sun. As it braves brutal heat and radiation to venture closer to the star, NASA hopes to discover a host of new insights:
- The closest observations of a star.
- Information about the solar wind, which could help spacecraft and astronauts survive future missions. Solar wind disturbances also shake Earth’s magnetic field and pump energy into radiation belts.
- Data on solar flares, which accelerate particles to energies that can be dangerous to astronauts and technology in space.
- Data on space weather, which can affect satellites and astronauts.
- Observations directly from inside the corona, which will help scientists understand why the sun’s atmosphere is hundreds of times hotter than its surface.
However, the most intriguing ideas can be unforeseen.
Our sun is the only star that we can study closely. Parker’s observations of the orb could shed light on stars across the universe. It may not discover aliens, but it could offer clues about life beyond our solar system.