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How Does Nasa Study the Sun?

coronal mass ejection
How Does Nasa Study the Sun?

Since the Sun is so close –just eight light minutes away–and critically important to life on Earth, it’s no surprise that it is the subject of intense scrutiny by scientists.

 

One of the largest solar research projects is being led by NASA, which has launched a literal flotilla of more than two dozen spacecraft to observe the Sun. These spacecraft together form NASA’s Heliophysics System Observatory, part of NASA’s Living with a Star program. Heliophysics is the study of the Sun, the solar magnetic field, and the “solar wind” of particles blown out from the Sun. All these things make up the heliosphere, which can be thought of as a giant bubble around the entire Solar System that stretches out far beyond even Pluto. The Heliosphere helps protect life on Earth, as it acts as a shield against deadly interstellar solar radiation and charged particles.

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This animation shows the solar wind forming a giant bubble around the sun and its planets, known as the heliosphere. (NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab)

 

The Heliophysics System Observatory counts 27 spacecraft supporting 20 NASA space missions. Some are satellites orbiting  Earth, like the Wind Spacecraft that observes the solar wind. Others are hurtling through deep space, such as Voyager 2, and are studying the Sun from great distances. And one, the Parker Solar Probe is aimed directly towards the Sun itself.

The Parker Solar Probe launched in 2018 and is the first man-made object to actually “touch” the Sun and its atmosphere, known as the corona. At its closest fly-by so far, on December 11, 2022, it came to within 5.3 million miles of the Sun’s surface. That's even closer than the orbit of Mercury, the innermost planet of the Solar System.

Catching Up with Parker Solar Probe

Catching up with Parker Solar Probe. Join Eric Christian, a research scientist on the mission, and learn more about what information the probe is bringing us and what we can learn from it.

 

Conditions that close to the Sun are extreme: temperatures can reach 2,500F (the temperature at which iron melts), and there’s constant bombardment by charged atomic particles. To withstand the heat, the probe–which is about the size of a car–is protected by a 4.5 inch thick carbon-composite shield that manages to keep its payload at room temperature.

The probe uses the heat shield to create its own mini “solar eclipse.” The shield blocks out most of the sun’s light–like the moon does during a solar eclipse–allowing an onboard telescope to peek over the heat-shield’s edge to observe the solar corona up close.

engineers working on heat shield for Parker Solar probe in a lab

The Thermal Protection System connects to the custom-welded truss on the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft at six points to minimize heat conduction. (NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman)

 

Meanwhile, other instruments are constantly analyzing the Sun. For example, two onboard electrostatic analyzers measure the particles blowing in the solar wind. The solar wind, though invisible to the eye, can cause havoc here on Earth: if it’s too strong, it can black out wireless communications networks, GPS systems and even disrupt the terrestrial power grid.

Along with the Parker Solar Probe, other spacecraft in the Heliophysics System Observatory are working to understand the inner workings of the Sun and how to keep spacecraft operational even when bombarded with solar radiation. NASA scientists say together, these missions will revolutionize the way we think of our closest star.

NASA Heliophysics Missions

Join Desiré Whitmore, Exploratorium physicist, and learn more about how NASA’s Science Mission Directorate Heliophysics Division investigates the nature of our closest star.