NASA Mission to 'Touch the Sun' Reveals Bizarre Magnetic Fields and 'Rogue Waves' in Corona

NASA has released the first results from its mission to "touch the sun" with the Parker Solar Probe, which launched from Earth just over two years ago.

Initial results show bizarre behavior of the sun's magnetic field, including reversals that took just seconds. They also found thousands of "giant rogue waves," and that when these passed the spacecraft, the solar wind sped up to over 310,000 miles per hour.

The first findings from the mission have been published across four scientific papers in the journal Nature. NASA is also holding a press conference with senior members of the mission to discuss the results. This begins at 1.30 p.m. ET and can be watched on the space agency's website here.

Despite the sun being a key factor in the existence of life on Earth, there are huge gaps in our understanding of it. For example, the corona—the outermost part of the atmosphere—is far hotter than the sun's surface, reaching about one million degrees Celsius compared to 5,500 C. The reason for this is unknown.

The sun also produces the solar wind, which is constantly bombarding Earth's magnetic field. When the sun produces strong outbursts, this can get through our protective shield and affect satellite and communication systems, as well as energy grids on the ground. Having a better grasp of how the solar wind is produced could help researchers find ways to better protect the planet from solar storms in the future.

The Parker Solar Probe has come closer to the sun than any other man-made object. During its final three flybys, scheduled for 2024 and 2025, it will come within 3.83 million miles of the sun's surface. The initial flybys that have now been completed saw the Parker Solar Probe orbit the sun at a distance of around 15 million miles at its closest point.

Justin Kasper, from the University of Michigan, is principal investigator of the Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons (SWEAP) instrument onboard the spaceship. The first measurements taken relate to the sun's corona and its magnetic fields. The corona is what produces the solar wind, but how it does this was not known. It is also unclear why the solar wind is accelerated as it leaves the corona.

With the new observations the team has found that while the 'fast' solar wind, which can reach between 300 and 620 miles per second, comes from large holes in the corona at the sun's north and south poles, the 'slow' solar wind comes from smaller holes in the corona at the equator. The fastest solar wind recorded was traveling at 1.3 million miles an hour.

"In space when we look at the solar wind we see many waves in the wind," Kasper told Newsweek. "They are waves of both the particles and the magnetic field and they carry energy. We wondered if these waves could be heating the corona and if they would be stronger closer to the sun. Think of being in the ocean watching waves flow by and wondering where they came from. To our surprise when we got closer to the sun, not only were the little waves stronger but we also saw giant 'rogue waves' just like in the ocean. When a rogue wave passed by the spacecraft the speed of the wind could jump more than 500,000 kilometers [310,685 miles] per hour in seconds.

"There were thousands of these rogue waves seen in the ten days we were near the sun. We wonder if the rogue waves are what heated the corona."

Kasper said findings also showed that the wind rotates around the sun between ten and 20 times faster than models had predicted. "We are discovering that our standard models of the sun are missing some very fundamental physics and in this mission Parker Solar Probe has a great chance of revealing what is really happening."

Results from the mission also showed unexpected and strange changes to the magnetic field. Researchers found magnetic fields could be traced back to coronal holes and that they would sometimes flip suddenly, reversing by as much as 180 degrees, before flipping back again in the space of a few seconds to a few hours.

The Parker Solar Probe continues to orbit the sun, getting a little closer on each round trip. Activity on the sun increases and decreases on an 11-year cycle. At present, it is in the 'solar minimum' with fewer sunspots than normal appearing. Over the coming years, activity is going to pick up until it reaches the 'solar maximum' around 2024—towards the end of the mission.

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The sun producing a 'solar prominence'. The first results from NASA's Parker Solar Probe, which aims to "touch the sun" have been announced by scientists. ESA/NASA/SOHO

"This is working out very nicely," Kasper said. "Right now we're nearing the deepest part of solar minimum, so the sun is nice and stable. It has a well-defined north and south magnetic pole just like Earth and the orientation of the magnetic field flips in a belt that goes around the sun's equator. This makes it a lot easier for us to compare the initial encounters and to try and connect what we see flying around the spacecraft to specific structures in the Sun's atmosphere.

"This is good practice because as the mission proceeds over the next five years and we get closer to the sun, the sun will get more active, with lots of sunspots popping up and a much more complicated magnetic field. It's almost like we get to start with the training wheels on our bike before getting closer to a more complex active sun."

Parker Solar Probe's next encounter with the sun will start in January. At this point, the team will be looking to see if their initial findings are repeated and if spikes in these rogue waves get even stronger as the spacecraft gets closer to the surface.

In a statement, Stuart Bale, from the University of California, Berkeley, and principal investigator on the probe's FIELDS instrument, said: "We have been working nearly around the clock for a decade on this thing, so to see the data...it is just a pleasure. It is a big case of delayed gratification, but it is terrific stuff."