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NASA’s closest-ever Sun flybys reveal how solar wind works

NASA’S closest-ever flyby of the Sun is shedding new light on solar wind – and it’s not the way scientists previously thought.

Solar wind is the outbursts of energetic particles flaring out of the Sun. They can disrupt our space communications and even satellites. NASA’s latest findings come from the Parker Solar Probe, which reached within 15 million miles of the Sun’s surface. That doesn’t sound close, but it’s not easy to get any closer without a spacecraft burning up or losing communication contact with NASA back on this planet.

“That is already closer to the Sun than Mercury, but the spacecraft will get even closer in the future, as it travels at more than 213,000 mph, faster than any previous spacecraft,” NASA announced Thursday.

Here’s what the Parker Solar Probe, which has now completed its first pass of the Sun, has told us so far. For one thing, the solar wind near the Sun is not only much stronger than scientists had expected, the Sun also releases tiny energetic particle events that never reach earth. And it produces energy bursts with extremely high levels of heavy elements.

“This first data from Parker reveals our star, the Sun, in new and surprising ways,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters.

Scientists are also learning more about a transition point in the solar wind that is helping them understand how the Sun’s rotation slows down over time. That has implications for the lifecycles of the Sun, its “violent past” and the formation of what scientists term “protoplanetary disks,” the dense disks of gas and dust that form around young stars.

“Observing the Sun up close rather than from a much greater distance is giving us an unprecedented view into important solar phenomena and how they affect us on Earth, and gives us new insights relevant to the understanding of active stars across galaxies,” noted Zurbuchen.

The scientists at NASA say the probe is functioning just like they hoped and they continue to analyze the treasure trove of data it’s sending back.

“The Sun is the only star we can examine this closely,” said Nicola Fox, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters. “Getting data at the source already is revolutionizing our understanding of our own star and stars across the universe. Our little spacecraft is soldiering through brutal conditions to send home startling and exciting revelations.”

The findings about the Sun are not just theoretical or merely for scientists. They do have a practical use. NASA says that the more they understand about solar wind, the safer we can make space travel for astronauts.

So far, the probe has only studied one small part of the Sun. But it’s the closest range we have ever managed to observe. And that is a historic accomplishment. However, NASA scientists say, they’re not resting on the probe’s accomplishments so far. There’s plenty more to discover.

“It’s just the beginning of an incredibly exciting time for heliophysics with Parker at the vanguard of new discoveries,” Zurbuchen said.

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