Probe Survives Massive Solar Eruption, Proves a Theory

Parker Solar Probe observes a coronal mass ejection clear dust 'like a vacuum cleaner'
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 19, 2023 12:00 PM CDT

A solar probe has survived flying through a huge solar eruption, or what NASA is calling "one of the most powerful coronal mass ejections (CMEs) ever recorded." The Parker Solar Probe, which has flown closer to the sun's surface than any other spacecraft, encountered and filmed the powerful eruption from the sun's outer atmosphere or corona on Sept. 5, 2022, according to a NASA statement. Its survival is "not only an impressive feat of engineering, but a huge boon for the scientific community," the agency noted, as the encounter helped prove a 20-year-old theory. In 2003, it was first proposed that CMEs interact with space dust in orbit around the sun, sending it outward, but this was difficult to prove at a distance.

Right in the thick of things, the probe observed just such a thing happening, per CBS News. "Parker Solar Probe viewed a CME act like a vacuum cleaner, clearing the dust out of its path," said Guillermo Stenborg, an astrophysicist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) and lead author of a study on the discovery published earlier this year in the Astrophysical Journal. "The CME displaced the dust all the way out to about 6 million miles from the Sun—about one-sixth of the distance between the Sun and Mercury—but it was replenished almost immediately by the interplanetary dust floating through the solar system," NASA added, noting the "dust depletion" was visible as decreased brightness in images from the probe's camera, as dust reflects light.

It's still unclear whether this dust depletion occurs with less powerful CMEs. But experts hope the probe will continue to provide insights into these eruptions, which have the potential to disrupt earthly communications and navigation systems and knock out power grids. "In all, Parker spent roughly two days observing the CME, becoming the first spacecraft ever to fly through a powerful solar explosion near the sun," APL explained, per Mashable. Further study "can help scientists better predict the speed at which CMEs could travel from the sun to Earth, and establish better forecasts for when they may arrive," per CBS. CMEs are responsible for an ongoing geomagnetic storm that brought the aurora borealis as far south as Nebraska on Tuesday, per Newsweek. (More space stories.)

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