SUNSPOT – Sunspot Solar Observatory’s Dunn Solar Telescope assisted NASA’s Parker Solar Probe this past week.
Members of the public were allowed to observe the 136-foot-tall Dunn Telescope as it followed the Parker Probe from Friday through Sunday.
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is an unmanned spacecraft that was launched in August to study the sun.
Sunspot Solar Observatory Director James McAteer said the Sunspot Observatory served as a set of eyes for the solar probe.
The probe is taking readings of various characteristics of the sun – such as temperatures, densities and magnetic fields – but cannot see what it is looking at, he said.
“It’s like one of those rotating sprinkler heads,” McAteer said. “Imagine you were just detecting the droplets of water in a certain part of your lawn, and that was all you got. We’re going to tell you what the sprinkler looks like, what the sprinkler head is doing instead of just the droplets of water. We’re going to be able to say, when that plasma came from the sun, this is what (the sun) looked like.”
He said Sunspot assisted in the mission because other telescopes around the world can’t maneuver to look where the probe is going to be.
“It’s been a complex thing to do because the connectivity between the sun and the point space that the Parker Solar Probe is flying through is not a trivial, straight-line connection,” he said. “We’re constantly running models to predict where it might be.”
The data will be shared with the global solar community, McAteer said.
“We’re looking forward to seeing how many people want to use it,” he said.
This past weekend was unique because the probe was traveling the same speed as the sun, meaning that it stayed above the same part of the sun until it is sling-shotted back into the solar system, McAteer said.
The probe is flying toward the sun and picks up speed by taking advantage of planetary gravity to slingshot and assist its orbit around the sun. The craft had its first gravity assist from Venus in early October, according to a NASA news release.
The gravity assists will help the spacecraft make tighter and tighter orbits around the sun, bringing it to its closest orbit in 2025. The craft will make 24 orbits around the sun during its mission, the release states.
The Sunspot Observatory will perform a similar role every time the probe orbits the sun, McAteer said.
The Parker mission will last seven years, culminating in an orbit that will take the probe within 3.83 million miles of the surface of the sun, many times closer than has previously been reached, according to the news release.
The spacecraft will face brutal heat and radiation conditions while providing humanity with unprecedented close-up observations of a star and helping us understand phenomena that have puzzled scientists for decades.
The observations will add key knowledge to NASA’s efforts to understand the sun, where changing conditions can propagate out into the solar system, affecting Earth and other worlds, the release states.
The probe’s findings are particularly important to human life on Earth.
They will help researchers improve forecasts of space weather events, which have the potential to damage satellites and harm astronauts in orbit, disrupt radio communications and, at their most severe, overwhelm power grids, the release states.