A well-fortified NASA spacecraft has flown by and survived a massive explosion from the sun.
Scientists recently released rare footage of this solar event, called a coronal mass ejection, or CME, which is an eruption of a mass of super-hot gas (plasma). “It’s like picking up a piece of the sun and throwing it into space,” Mark Miesch, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Center for Space Weather Prediction, 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. A pioneering probe closely examines the behavior of the sun.
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Here’s what you see in footage released by Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, a science associate on the solar probe:
The actual sun is not visible in the shot, but the position of our star is shown on the left side of the screen.
In 14 seconds the CME becomes visible and shoots from left to right. Then, BAM.
The probe then passes through the eruption and exits at the end of the video.
It was no small thing. “In all, Parker spent about two days observing the CME, becoming the first spacecraft ever to fly past a powerful solar flare close to the Sun,” explained the Johns Hopkins Laboratory.
Scientists are using 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 threaten satellites, disrupt communications and navigation technologies, and even knock out Earth’s power grids,” explains NASA. Infamously, a powerful CME knocked out power to millions of people in Quebec, Canada in 1989. The CME hit the Earth’s magnetic field on March 12 of that year and thereafter written by NASA astronomer Sten Odenwald“Just after 2:44 a.m. on March 13, currents found a weakness in Québec’s electrical grid. In less than two minutes, Québec’s entire grid lost power. During the 12-hour blackout that followed, millions of people suddenly found themselves in dark office buildings and underground passages and in stalled elevators.”
The CME ejected from the solar surface on February 27, 2000.
Acknowledgments: SOHO ESA/NASA
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In the coming years, observations from the Parker Solar Probe could help researchers better predict where a strong solar flare might hit Earth, allowing a country or region to better prepare (for example, by temporarily shutting down the power grid).
For now, the mission continues: In 2024, a shielded spacecraft will strike a an incredible 430,000 mph as it approaches within 3.9 million miles of the Sun.