In August of last year, NASA sent a spacecraft hurtling toward the inner Solar System, with the aim of getting some answers about the mysterious star at the center of our cosmic neighborhood. Now more than a year later, that tiny robot has started to decode some of the mysteries surrounding our Sun’s behavior, after…


In August of last year, NASA sent a spacecraft hurtling toward the inner Solar System, with the aim of getting some answers about the mysterious star at the center of our cosmic neighborhood. Now more than a year later, that tiny robot has started to decode some of the mysteries surrounding our Sun’s behavior, after venturing closer to our parent star than any human-made object has before.

That spacecraft is NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, a car-sized vehicle designed to withstand temperatures of more then 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Its various instruments are protected by an extra hardy heat shield, designed to keep the spacecraft relatively cool as it gets near our balmy host star. Already, the Parker Solar Probe has gotten up close and personal with the Sun, coming within 15 million miles of the star — closer than Mercury and any other spacecraft sent to the Sun before. “We got into the record books already,” Adam Szabo, the mission scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center for Parker Solar Probe, tellsThe Verge.

are detailed today in four papers published in the journalNature.

The Parker Solar Probe getting its heat shield prior to launch
Image: NASA

Perhaps the biggest find from the probe so far is that the Sun’s magnetic field is much more volatile closer to its surface, switching its direction back and forth. “What we didn’t expect is for the magnetic field to become really really choppy,” says Szabo. The Sun’s magnetic field is filled with magnetic forces that move in various directions. And up close to the Sun, the direction of the star’s magnetic field would completely turn around a full 180 degrees in little moments known as “switchbacks.” “This is completely unexpected,” says Szabo. “These are significant orientation changes that we did not expect. And so we have been scratching our heads saying, ‘Okay, what can cause this?’”

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