NASA’s mission to ‘touch the sun’ beams back first images

Illuminating First Light Data from Parker Solar Probe.

The right side of this image — from WISPR’s inner telescope — has a 40-degree field of view, with its right edge 58.5 degrees from the Sun’s center. The left side of the image is from WISPR’s outer telescope, which has a 58-degree field of view and extends to about 160 degrees from the Sun. There is a parallax of about 13 degrees in the apparent position of the Sun as viewed from Earth and from Parker Solar Probe. Credit: NASA/Naval Research Laboratory/Parker Solar Probe
The right side of this image — from WISPR’s inner telescope — has a 40-degree field of view, with its right edge 58.5 degrees from the Sun’s center. The left side of the image is from WISPR’s outer telescope, which has a 58-degree field of view and extends to about 160 degrees from the Sun. There is a parallax of about 13 degrees in the apparent position of the Sun as viewed from Earth and from Parker Solar Probe. Credit: NASA/Naval Research Laboratory/Parker Solar Probe

Just over a month into its mission, Parker Solar Probe has returned first-light data from each of its four instrument suites. This first-light data gives NASA a chance to check that all systems are firing as they should be.

Though, the first image is not a big deal for Parker probe but, it is a vital point of reference in guaranteeing the shuttle’s frameworks are filling in as proposed.

As the only imager on Parker Solar Probe, WISPR will provide the clearest-yet glimpse of the solar wind from within the Sun’s corona. WISPR was turned on in early September 2018 and took closed-door test images for calibration. On Sept. 9, WISPR’s door was opened, allowing the instrument to take the first images during its journey to the Sun.

WISPR contains an inward and external telescope that sit behind Parker’s cutting edge heat shield. The first image from the test does not contain the sun, but rather it contains another pillar of the close planetary system: Jupiter. The gas giant sits is the bright spot on the right-hand picture, just right of centre.

Russ Howard, WISPR principal investigator from the Naval Research Laboratory, studied the images to determine the instrument was pointing as expected, using celestial landmarks as a guide.

“There is a very distinctive cluster of stars on the overlap of the two images. The brightest is the star Antares-alpha, which is in the constellation Scorpius and is about 90 degrees from the Sun,”

As the spacecraft approaches the Sun, its orientation will change, and so will WISPR’s images. With each solar orbit, WISPR will capture images of the structures flowing out from the corona. While measurements have been made before by other instruments at a distance of 1 AU – or approximately 93 million miles – WISPR will get much closer, about 95% of the way to the Sun from Earth, dramatically increasing the ability to see what’s occurring in that region with a much finer scale than ever before and providing a more pristine picture of the solar corona.

The probe also sent data back from its three other instruments on board: ISʘIS, FIELDS and SWEAP (more on those below) which are all dedicated to unraveling the mysteries of the sun by taking detailed scientific observations.

ISʘIS, which stands for Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun, will be used to measure activity such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections — high energy bursts so powerful they can threaten electronics on Earth.

The FIELDS experiment investigates electric and magnetic fields around the sun, while SWEAP (Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons) three instruments will take detailed measurements of the solar wind.

David McComas, Professor of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University and principal investigator of the ISʘIS instrument suite said, “The ISʘIS team is delighted with instrument turn-on so far. There are a few more steps to go, but so far everything looks great!”

First light data showed all instruments were operating effectively — and that bodes well for NASA and its research teams as we get closer to the sun than ever before.

The data above, gathered during the boom deployment shortly after the spacecraft’s launch in August, shows how the magnetic field changes as the boom swung away from Parker Solar Probe. The early data is the magnetic field of the spacecraft itself, and the instruments measured a sharp drop in the magnetic field as the boom extended away from the spacecraft.

First light data showed all instruments were operating effectively — and that bodes well for NASA and its research teams as we get closer to the sun than ever before.

The Parker Solar Probe is currently zipping through space and will complete the first of seven flybys of Venus on Oct. 3. That will put it in an elliptical orbit around the sun that lasts 150 days.