A well fortified NASA spacecraft flew through and survived a huge blast from the sun.
Scientists recently released rare footage of this solar event, called a coronal mass ejection, or CME, which is the eruption of a mass of super-hot gas (plasma). “It’s like scooping up a piece of the sun and shoving it into space,” Mark Miesch, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center, told Mashable earlier this year.
This CME occurred in September 2022 and was “one of the most powerful coronal mass ejections (CMEs) ever recorded,” NASA explained. Fortunately, the space agency’s Parker Solar Probe is equipped with a robust heat shield, is designed to withstand such intense bursts of radiation. The ground-breaking probe closely examines the behavior of the sun.
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Here’s what you see in the footage posted by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, a scientific collaborator on the solar probe:
The sun itself is not visible in the image, but the location of our star is shown on the left of the screen.
After 14 seconds, the CME becomes visible and shoots out from left to right. After that, BAM.
The probe then passes through the outbreak and terminates at the end of the video.
This was no small feat. “In all, Parker spent about two days observing the CME, becoming the first spacecraft ever to fly through a powerful solar explosion near the Sun,” the Johns Hopkins laboratory explained.
Scientists use observations from the Parker Solar Probe along with other spacecraft and telescopes to better understand the behavior of potentially destructive CMEs and other types of space weather, such as solar flares (explosions of energy from the Sun’s surface). CMEs, for example, “can endanger satellites, disrupt communication and navigation technologies, and even knock out the power grid on Earth,” NASA explains. In 1989, a potent CME infamously knocked out power to millions in Québec, Canada. The CME hit the Earth’s magnetic field on March 12 of that year, and then, wrote NASA astronomer Sten Odenwald“Just after 2:44 a.m. on March 13, currents found a weakness in Québec’s power grid. In less than two minutes, Québec’s entire power grid lost power. During the 12 hours of blackouts that followed, millions of people suddenly found themselves in dark office buildings and underground pedestrian tunnels and in stopped elevators.”
A CME ejected from the surface of the Sun on February 27, 2000.
Credit: SOHO ESA / NASA
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In the coming years, observations from the Parker Solar Probe could help scientists better predict where a potent ejecta from the Sun might hit Earth, allowing a country or region to better prepare (for example, by temporarily shutting down power grid).
For now, the mission continues: In 2024, the shielded spacecraft will hit one a whopping 430,000 mph as it comes within 3.9 million miles of the sun.