You’ve probably heard that NASA’s Parker Solar Probe made history this year by becoming the first spacecraft to “touch the Sun.” Now there’s video of the probe whizzing through the Sun’s corona, and to say it’s breathtaking is an understatement of the year. And yes, that is the Milky Way, as seen through the Sun’s “atmosphere”, special guest starring.
Parker is no stranger to historic firsts and record-breaking feats. It broke the distance record this year, becoming the closest human-made object to the Sun at only 8.5 million kilometers (5.3 million miles) from the Sun’s surface. It also broke its own record, making it the fastest man-made object ever.
Its latest historic milestone, however, comes with video footage. Take a ride through the Sun’s corona, Milky Way and all.
Because the Sun is not solid, there is no clear boundary between it and space. The corona, also known as the Sun’s atmosphere, is the region where solar material is constrained by gravity and magnetic fields. This is known as the Alfvén critical surface, and it marks the end of the solar atmosphere and the beginning of the solar wind. Until now, scientists had no idea where the Alfvén critical surface was.
Its distance from the Sun’s surface was estimated to be 6.9 to 13.8 million kilometers (4.3 to 8.6 million miles). Parker encountered magnetic and particle conditions that told NASA scientists it had crossed the Alfvén critical surface for the first time and finally entered the solar atmosphere on April 28, 2021, at 13 million kilometers (8.1 million miles) above the Sun’s surface.
It sampled particles and magnetic fields as it sped through the Sun’s upper atmosphere at around 142 kilometers per second (88 miles per second), dipping as low as 10.4 million kilometers (6.5 million miles) from the Sun’s surface. It also took a large number of images, which were stitched together by scientists on the ground to create this incredible video. The Milky Way can be seen peeking out from behind highly energized particles and structures in the corona known as streamers zipping by.
However, it is more than just a fantastic video. What the Parker Solar Probe discovers there, and as it gets closer in the coming years, will forever change our understanding of our star.