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NASA spacecraft takes mind-blowing photo of Mercury from inside the Sun’s atmosphere

On Earth, you would consider the sweaty guy sitting next to you on a bus as ‘close’, but distance works a bit differently in space. 

Several weeks ago, the Parker Probe became the closest object to the Sun we’ve ever sent into space – when it was 27.2 million kilometres away.

That distance is the equivalent of making the trip from Paris to Sydney 1604 times. Fou!

The Parker Probe’s mission is to traverse through the Sun’s corona – the outer atmosphere, not a beer – and collect unprecedented data.

It completed the first phase of its solar journey between October 31 and November 11.

Images taken from the flyby by Parker Probe’s WISPR (Wide-field Imager for Solar Probe), have since been sent back to Earth, and NASA has shared one of the stunning shots.

Parker Solar Probe image

(Image: NASA/Naval Research Laboratory/Parker Solar Probe)

The above image shows a coronal streamer – structures of solar material within the Sun’s atmosphere – seen over the east limb of the Sun. That bright circle is Mercury (and you thought the Australian summer was hot).

“Helio Physicists have been waiting more than 60 years for a mission like this to be possible,” said Nicola Fox, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“The solar mysteries we want to solve are waiting in the corona,” Fox added.

Heliophysics is the study of the effects of the Sun on Earth, other planets and the entire solar system.

NASA explains the Parker Solar Probe is designed to answer three major questions concerning the baffling physics of the Sun:

  1. How is the Sun’s outer atmosphere heated to temperatures 300 times higher than the visible surface below?
  2. How is the solar wind accelerated so quickly (about 400 km/s) to the high speeds we observe?
  3. How do some of the Sun’s most energetic particles rocket away from the Sun at more than half the speed of light?

“Parker Solar Probe is providing us with the measurements essential to understanding solar phenomena that have been puzzling us for decades,” said Nour Raouafi, Parker Solar Probe project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland.

“Parker is an exploration mission — the potential for new discoveries is huge.”

The proximity of the Parker Solar Probe isn’t the only impressive thing about it. At certain points on its journey, it matches the Sun’s rotational speed – about 2 km/s.

That makes it not only the spacecraft that has come closest to a star, but also the fastest spacecraft in history.

Beyond taking amazing photographs, the Parker Solar Probe will continue to examine the Sun’s electromagnetic fields, ions and particles until its mission concludes in 2025.

[Feature image by Johny Goerend, body image by NASA]

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