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NASA artists rendering of the sun
Courtesy of NASA

Go deep inside the Sun’s atmosphere with these rare NASA images

Captured by NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, the photos shows a first-ever closer look at the Sun’s ‘luminous’ upper atmosphere and reveals new discoveries about the star

For the first time in history, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has entered the Sun’s upper atmosphere – called the corona – capturing rare images of its luminous solar beams. 

The probe, which originally launched in 2018, swooped through the Sun’s gaseous surface last April, reaching the Alfvén critical surface – a point 6.5 million miles from the giant’s centre, which marks the end of the solar atmosphere and beginning of the solar wind. 

Yesterday (December 14), NASA confirmed the mission’s data in a press release. “Just as landing on the Moon allowed scientists to understand how it was formed, touching the Sun is a gigantic stride for humanity to help us uncover critical information about our closest star and its influence on the Solar System,” said Nicola Fox, the director of NASA’s heliophysics science division.

Thanks to its 4.5-inch-thick shield, the probe was able to safely capture images of magnetic zig-zag structures found in the intensive solar winds – powerful streams of energised particles – which had previously remained a mystery to scientists. “Such measurements from the corona will be critical for understanding and forecasting extreme space weather events that can disrupt telecommunications and damage satellites around Earth,” stated NASA.

Due to the probe passing in and out of the corona several times, scientists were also able to disprove that the Alfvén critical surface is shaped like a smooth ball. Instead, it contains spikes and valleys which wrinkle the exterior – opening up new methods of tracking solar winds.

The images also show surface features called “pseudostreamers” – massive, radiant sunbeams which can be seen from Earth during solar eclipses. According to NASA, passing through the beams was like “flying into the eye of a storm”. “The conditions quieted, particles slowed, and number of switchbacks dropped – a dramatic change from the busy barrage of particles the spacecraft usually encounters in the solar wind,” explained the statement.

While the first passage through the corona only lasted a few hours, Parker will continue to spiral closer to the sun until its final orbit in 2025 – eventually reaching just 3.83 million miles from its surface. The next flyby will take place in January 2022.

“I’m excited to see what Parker finds as it repeatedly passes through the corona in the years to come,” explained Nicola Fox, the director of NASA's Heliophysics Division. “The opportunity for new discoveries is boundless.”

NASA also recently unveiled a rare photograph of Mars’ surface. The realistic rendering – which was captured by Curiosity Rover – layers two sets of panoramic images in the morning and afternoon to reveal a close look at the Red Planet’s rocky terrain. 

Last month, the space agency launched a mission to deliberately bump a spacecraft into an asteroid in an attempt to alter its orbit and prevent future asteroids from destroying Earth. The mission marks the first time humanity has tried to interfere with the gravitational position of an interstellar object.

Watch the live footage here, and take a look at Parker’s images below.