Much of how the Sun works remains a mystery: It has its own weather cycles, which we are just beginning to understand, for starters, and scientists are unsure how the solar wind—a major component in solar weather—exactly works. Good thing NASA recently launched a mission toward the center of our solar system to take a look at how this furnace functions.
Launched in 2018,
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will take years to swoop into orbit around the Sun, but once it’s there, its main goal is to figure out exactly what drives the solar wind, the constant stream of highly charged particles that are spit out from the openings in the surface. The probe will also study the Sun’s magnetic field. Solar weather is important to understand because those particles and blasts of radiation can affect our satellites, causing communication delays or even blackouts.
The Parker Solar Probe is on an epic journey to study our Sun, which is one of the most challenging places to visit in the entire solar system. Because it’s hot, of course, but because gravitationally it’s a challenge as well, since the pull from the Sun has a goal of destroying spacecraft. What’s more, once a craft gets closer, it has to contend with highly charged particles called the solar wind, which can damage it. This image from Parker, a composite of several photos, shows the solar wind passing by its instruments. At the closest approach to the Sun, Parker will be traveling an astounding 430,000 miles per hour. While it is not going quite that fast yet, between its speed and the streaks of solar wind whooshing by, the NASA probe appears to be on a space roller coaster. Oh, and that small white sphere at upper left? Say hello to planet Mercury.
NASA/Naval Research Laboratory/Parker Solar Probe
Before the Parker Solar Probe launched into space nearly a year ago, it was built in something called a clean room. This image shows the spacecraft being tested there by NASA engineers. The spacecraft will not only revolutionize our understanding of the Sun and its, um, climate, but the spacecraft itself is a transformative innovation. Outfitted with a high-tech carbon foam heat shield, Parker is able to withstand temperatures up to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. However, on the other side of the heat shield, the spacecraft will remain a comfortable 70 degrees.
The European Space Agency’s star mapping satellite called
Gaia has been keeping an eye on the events closer to Earth—particularly near potential asteroids. This image shows a representation of the paths of 14,000 known asteroids. The streaks in orange and red are mostly objects located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. And while Gaia mostly spots asteroids we already know about, it also found three near-Earth asteroids that we’d never seen before, shown here as the light gray rings. It’s always good to have an idea of exactly how many near-Earth asteroids are out there at any given time, not only to be able to track and study them, but also because we could then try to redirect one if we were worried it was going to strike the planet.
Talk about boudoir photography: Here’s Gaia in its own clean room prior to launch. The large circular feature is its sun shield, built to cast a permanent shadow over the spacecraft. It regulates the temperature of Gaia and shields it from the radiation found in space.
It’s not pumpkin season yet, but this image of the Sun is pretty orange and plump. NASA’s
Solar Dynamics Observatory is always studying our star, observing it through different wavelength filters to get the full picture of what’s happening. This UV filter highlights the Sun’s corona, which you can see is sort of a cloud-like feature puffing out from the edges. The darker regions are called coronal holes; these are regions with less radiation, but the openings release the highly charged particles that make up the solar wind.
Sun still in your eyes? Gaze upon WIRED’s full collection of space photos
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