The Parker probe: Nasa's spacecraft survives flying through a solar flare

This happened as the Sun approaches solar maximum

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A Nasa spacecraft flew through a solar flare - and survived. 

The space agency's Parker spacecraft - the fastest human-made object and the first-ever mission to ever “touch the Sun” - flew through a powerful solar explosion called a coronal mass ejection (CME).

 In The Astrophysical Journal, scientists reported the probe first detected the CME remotely before skirting along its flank, then passed into the structure and finally exited through the other side. 

Images from NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory depict a large solar flare erupting off the sun in June, 2011 (Pic: Getty Images)Images from NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory depict a large solar flare erupting off the sun in June, 2011 (Pic: Getty Images)
Images from NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory depict a large solar flare erupting off the sun in June, 2011 (Pic: Getty Images)

The probe came in at about 9.2 million km (5.7 million miles) from the solar surface which is closer than Mercury ever gets to the Sun.

Flares from the Sun expel billions of tons of charged particles at speeds ranging from 100-3,000km per second (60-1,900 miles per second) and when directed towards Earth, they can be destructive if strong enough. For example, powerful CME's can alter the planet’s magnetic field, generate spectacular auroras and also devastate satellite electronics and electrical grids on the ground. 

Parker project scientist Nour Raouafi at the Johns Hopkins University said: “The potential damage of this class of event, large and very fast CMEs, can be colossal.

“This is the closest to the Sun we’ve ever observed a CME. We’ve never seen an event of this magnitude at this distance."

Although the research was published earlier this month, the CME occurred in September 2022. 

"In all, Parker spent roughly two days observing the CME, becoming the first spacecraft ever to fly through a powerful solar explosion near the sun," the Johns Hopkins lab explained.

As the probe passed behind the CME’s shockwave, it found that some particles accelerating up to 1,350km (840 miles) per second.

If such a flare had been directed towards Earth, Dr Raouafi suspects it may have been close in magnitude to an 1859 solar storm known as the Carrington Event.

However, the Parker probe is fitted with heat shield and radiators and its thermal protection system ensured its temperatures never changed.

Scientists are currently working to piece together how the event unfolded by comparing measurements collected by the probe within the CME with those gathered outside it.

“You try simplified models to explain certain aspects of the event, but when you are this close to the Sun, none of these models can explain everything,” said study lead author Orlando Romeo from the University of California, Berkeley.

“We’re still not exactly sure what is happening there or how to connect it,” Dr Romeo said.

Researchers said the spacecraft is likely to observe more such massive CMEs as the Sun approaches solar maximum – a peak in its 11-year activity cycle that is expected in 2025 and its next spacecraft’s next solar flyby is set to occur on 27 September.