Researchers hope the Parker Solar Probe will come face to face with a solar flare on its 14th pass near the Sun.
Eugene Parker, world leader in astrophysics to whom we owe much of our knowledge of the sun, died on March 15 (see our article); but the Parker Solar Probe (PSP) which bears his name is still in orbit around the star.
It has just completed its thirteenth passage through perihelion, that is to say the point in its orbit where it is closest to the blaze. And its operators are already looking forward to it doing a full turn, because the next passages of the probe could well hold excellent surprises for them.
Indeed, the Sun is currently approaching the peak of its 11-year cycle, which will occur in 2025. It is even more turbulent than expected; In the past few months alone, astronomers have observed many sunspots, themselves associated with solar flares and coronal mass ejections that have sometimes had mild, but significant consequences on Earth (see our articles here and here) .
On the whole, these phenomena are now relatively well known. But as always in science, the devil is in the details. And to understand all the ins and outs of the dynamics of the Sun, there is only one solution: get as close to it as possible to collect data directly on site.
The Parker Solar Probe could cross a solar flare
And that is precisely what the researchers hope. They expect the probe to end up nose to nose with a solar flare on an upcoming pass. This sounds like bad news, but it’s not; on the contrary, it is a prospect that is already thrilling astronomers. This machine is indeed designed to withstand all the assaults of our star. This would therefore be a superb opportunity to carry out unique measures of their kind.
“Nobody has ever flown so close to the star during a solar event”, explains Nour Raouafi, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University. “This data would be completely new, and it would certainly tell us a lot.”, he insists.
And this is not the only element that will make the next passages very interesting. On this date, there will even be a second machine that will be perfectly positioned to enjoy the show: Solar Orbiter. This machine, the result of a collaboration between NASA and ESA, will also be able to report a lot of data on the events observed by the PSP.
A new look at the vagaries of the Sun
A real boon for researchers; if they come across an interesting phenomenon, they will have access to additional information that will make it possible to better exploit the information reported by the PSP. “By combining data from multiple space missions and ground-based observatories, we can understand global issues”, explains Raouafi.
Suffice to say that the researchers are waiting for the next passage of the December 11 eagerly; with a little luck, the information reported by the probes will make it possible to better understand the mechanisms associated with sunspots and solar flares.
And that’s probably just the beginning; even if it does not hit the jackpot during its 14th visit, it will still have a dozen opportunities to do so before the end of 2025, when the Sun will reach its peak of activity.
“While the Sun was quiet, we have already produced excellent science for three years”, recalls Raouafi. “But our view of the solar wind and the corona is going to be totally different from now on, and we’re very curious about what we’re going to find out.”, he rejoices.