For such a familiar celestial body, the sun is still very mysterious—but we’re getting closer to it than ever before.
Kelly Korreck is still thinking about the time her spacecraft flew into the sun, how one moment, the probe was rushing through a stormy current of fast-moving particles, and the next, it was plunging somewhere quieter, where the plasma rolled like ocean waves. No machine had ever crossed that mysterious boundary before. But Korreck and her team had dispatched a mission for that exact purpose, and their plan worked. For the first time in history, a spacecraft had entered the sun’s atmosphere.
“This is a totally cool place to go—well, I guess, hot place to go,” Korreck, a solar physicist at NASA, told me. “We’ve touched plasma and gas that actually belongs to the sun.”
The NASA probe, named Parker, made the historic dive in April of last year, but scientists waited until last month to announce the news, after they’d analyzed the data and made sure that the spacecraft had indeed crossed into the top layer of the sun’s atmosphere, known as the corona. NASA then declared that Parker had “touched the sun,” basking in a bit of poetic license. The spacecraft can’t reach down to the photosphere, the layer that radiates light, what’s commonly understood to be the “surface” of the sun. But even that isn’t a distinct, solid surface like the ground on Earth, hence the quotation marks. So touch, shmuch: Parker certainly has, to use a less scientific term, booped the sun.