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Hot Ride

April 3, 2019

The hottest ride in the solar system is really sizzling right now. Parker Solar Probe will pass just 15 million miles from the Sun tomorrow — about 12 million miles closer than any other spacecraft. But it’s setting up for even closer encounters in the years ahead.

The craft’s mission is to study the Sun’s thin outer atmosphere, the corona. It’s millions of degrees hotter than the surface of the Sun, and scientists are trying to understand why that’s the case. The corona probably is heated by the Sun’s powerful magnetic field, but the details are still hazy.

Parker is also studying the region where the solar wind is born. This flow of charged particles breezes through the solar system at a million miles per hour or faster. When it reaches Earth, it creates the aurorae. Intense winds can cause trouble. A better understanding of how the wind gets started should help scientists produce better forecasts of how the winds will affect us here on Earth.

Parker Solar Probe was launched last August. It made its first close pass by the Sun in November — also at around 15 million miles — and began its second orbit around the Sun in January. Plans call for it to make 24 orbits in all, getting closer to the Sun on each circuit. In 2025, it’ll pass less than four million miles from the Sun — the hottest moment for the solar system’s hottest ride.

We’ll talk about Earth’s magnetic field tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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