Here Comes the Sun! Parker Solar Probe Instruments See 'First Light'

WISPER image
These images, taken with Parker Solar Probe's WISPER inner and outer telescopes, show a view of the universe about 13 degrees off of that seen from Earth. (Image credit: NASA/Naval Research Laboratory/Parker Solar Probe)

As Parker Solar Probe prepares for an unprecedented close-up of the sun, the new spacecraft sent data home showing that all is well in the mission. The probe's instruments showed the band of the Milky Way and picked up evidence of the solar wind, the constant stream of particles emanating from the sun.

The spacecraft will swoop close to the sun in November of 2018 and, over the course of seven years and many orbits, will take periodic close-ups of the sun and zoom by Venus several times. Parker will come within 4 million miles (6.4 million kilometers) of the sun on its closest orbit; that's more than eight times closer than the planet Mercury gets to the sun.

One big mystery that Parker may help shed light on, so to speak, is why the sun's corona (or upper atmosphere) is so much hotter than the layers below. The corona's temperature ranges from 1.7 million degrees Fahrenheit (1 million degrees Celsius) to more than 17 million degrees F (10 million degrees C), according to the National Solar Observatory. By contrast, the photosphere or "surface" of the sun reaches roughly 10,000 degrees F (5,500 degrees C). [In Photos: NASA's Parker Solar Probe in the Clean Room]

But to investigate that phenomenon, Parker's four instrument suites need to work correctly. Fortunately for mission investigators, the first data sent back in the month after launch shows that everything is working fine.

"All instruments returned data that not only serves for calibration but also captures glimpses of what we expect them to measure near the sun to solve the mysteries of the solar atmosphere, the corona," project scientist Nour Raouafi, who is based at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Maryland, said in a NASA statement.

Here's what each of the instruments returned:

  • WISPR (Wide-Field Imager for Solar Probe): A new image from the two WISPR telescopes captured a dark portion of the Milky Way galaxy as well as the star Antares, which is in the constellation Scorpius. Eventually, WISPR will send back images of the corona and other parts of the sun's atmosphere.

First light from Parker Solar Probe's Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun instrument suite. (Image credit: NASA/Princeton University/Parker Solar Probe)
  • ISʘIS (Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun): This consists of two instruments that measure high-energy particles associated with activity on the sun, such as solar flares or coronal mass ejections of charged particles. The two instruments picked up cosmic rays (on the higher end of the energy spectrum) that come from outside of the galaxy, as well as hydrogen and helium particles (on the lower end of the energy spectrum). When the instruments are closer to the sun, they will seek evidence of solar energetic particles.

Early results from Parker Solar Probe's FIELDS instrument suite showed the signature of a solar flare. (Image credit: ASA/UC Berkeley/Parker Solar Probe)
  • FIELDS (Electromagnetic Fields Investigation): This instrument will measure magnetic and electric fields in the sun's atmosphere to help scientists better understand why the corona is so much hotter than the photosphere. The first data that FIELDS sent back was collected when the instrument's antennas, attached to a boom, were deployed, shortly after the spacecraft's launch. Investigators caught a glimpse of the spacecraft's own magnetic field during the deployment; the strength of the field dropped off as the boom extended away from the spacecraft.

Parker Solar Probe's SWEAP instrument surprised scientists by picking up evidence of the solar wind (red) shortly after the tool began recording data. (Image credit: NASA/University of Michigan/Parker Solar Probe)
  • SWEAP (Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons): This suite has three instruments: a cup that measures the solar wind and two solar probe analyzers that look at charged particles in that wind. Investigators saw a gust of solar wind blowing into the cup shortly after they first turned on the instrument, even though the orientation of the spacecraft was not expected to yield measurements. Later on, the analyzers examined the solar wind for short periods.

You can download all the data from these instruments at this NASA website.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: