First Light from NASA's Parker Solar Probe

Earlier this month, the Parker Solar Probe (PSP) sent back its first data and images from all four science instruments onboard.

Published on 28th Sep, 2018

Hello Space Fans and welcome to another edition of Space Fan News. In this episode, looks like its first light season because we have another space telescope that has released its first science images. Earlier this month, the Parker Solar Probe sent back the first images from each of its four instruments while enroute to the Sun. These early observations – while not yet examples of the key science observations it will take closer to the Sun – show that each of the instruments is working well. Last month, on August 12 2018 the Parker Solar Probe was launched aboard a Delta IV-Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base here in Florida. Its destination is none other than our sun and this probe will get closer to it than anything humanity has ever sent out there. The probe is scheduled to arrive in November and while it’s on its way, mission planners turned on the instruments and took some data earlier this month to make sure everything was working. The trip to the sun is harder than you’d think. Throughout its mission it will use Venus to slingshot closer to the sun over the course of seven years. The spacecraft will fly through the Sun’s atmosphere as close as 3.8 million miles to our star’s surface, well within the orbit of Mercury and more than seven times closer than any spacecraft has come before. It’s first close approach to the sun happens this November and to be ready, astronomers are seeing if the instruments survived the launch and are ready to take data. First up is WISPR, the Wide-Field Imager for Solar Probe. This is the only imager onboard PSP and will provide the clearest look yet of the solar wind from inside the solar corona. It consists of two telescopes sitting behind the heat shield and are covered by a protective door during launch to keep them safe. WISPR was turned on in early September and took several images. The right side of this image was taken from WISPR Inner, a 40 degree field of view telescope. The left side was taken from WISPR Outer, which has a 58 degree field of view. The Sun, not visible in the image, is far off to the right of the image’s right edge. The planet Jupiter is visible in the image captured by WISPR’s inner telescope — it’s the bright object slightly right of center in the right-hand panel of the image. The left side of the photo shows a beautiful image of the Milky Way, looking at the galactic center. As the spacecraft approaches the Sun, its orientation will change, and so will WISPR’s images. With each solar orbit, WISPR will capture images of the structures flowing out from the corona. WISPR will get so close that it will be able to see about 95% of the way to the Sun from Earth, dramatically increasing the ability to see what’s occurring in that region with a much finer scale than ever before and providing a more pristine picture of the solar corona. Next was the ISOIS (ee-sis) instrument which measure high-energy particles associated with solar flare activity. This initial data shows some background cosmic rays but as it get closer to the sun, ISOIS will detect particles coming from active regions and CME’s. The FIELDS Instrument captures the electric and magnetic field of the sun and promises to be one of the most valuable collections of data that the PSP has. It is notoriously difficult to measure magnetic fields if you’re not directly in them, they usually have to be inferred by looking at the behavior of plasma streams, but with FIELDS, it will deploy a boom which will detect charged particles to give us an idea of the magnetic field strength that the probe is travelling through. This first light data, gathered during the boom deployment shortly after the spacecraft’s launch in August, shows how the magnetic field changes as the boom swung away from Parker Solar Probe. The early data is the magnetic field of the spacecraft itself, and the instruments measured a sharp drop in the magnetic field as the boom extended away from the spacecraft. Finally there is SWEAP, the Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons package includes three instruments: two solar probe analyzers to measure electrons and ions in the solar wind, while the solar probe Cup sticks out from behind PSP’s heat shield to measure solar wind directly and it streams off the sun. After opening covers, turning on high voltages and running internal diagnostics, all three instruments caught glimpses of the solar wind itself. The mission for the Parker Solar Probe will span seven years where it will continue orbiting the sun and taking data for as long as the instruments hold out and then, around 2020 it will be joined by the ESA’s solar orbiter which will be launched in next month and will be placed into an elliptical orbit, getting within the Orbit of Mercury. So it looks like we’re about to get up close and personal with the closest star to us and what we will learn from this ambitious little probicle will no doubt be stupendous. At it’s closest, the Parker Solar probe will get to within 3.8 million miles of the Solar Surface, which is more than seven times closer than the current record holder the Helios 2 spacecraft from way back in 1976. It will take about seven years to get there, but I’ll be sure to keep you posted. Well that’s it for this episode Space Fans. Patreon Patrons like these bring SFN and other videos to you every week, please consider becoming one if you’d like to ensure Deep Astronomy stays alive. Thanks to all of you for watching and as always, Keep Looking Up!