Space Photos of the Week: Parker's Potential

Despite being the source of all life on Earth and the definitional center of the solar system, the sun is still something of an enigma. How fast does the solar wind blow? How do those particles streaming from the sun’s surface actually achieve liftoff? What’s going on in the corona, the sun’s atmosphere? Well, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is on its way to shed some light on those mysteries. This week the mission’s researchers released new results in the journal Nature—a tantalizing, preliminary look at our star. Some of the answers are there, along with a close-up look at subatomic particle events invisible from Earth. And more answers are coming in 2024, when the Parker Solar Probe enters it’s official “science orbit.” So in the plucky probe’s honor, here’s a journey through some of the existing stellar science. Grab your sunglasses.

Medium-sized solar flares like this burst of radiation captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamic Observatory in 2013 generally don’t affect things back on Earth, but they can interfere with GPS satellites and other objects in orbit. It’s a small price to pay for beauty; these solar burps are also partially responsible for the atmospheric ionization that causes aurora events at Earth’s poles. Photograph: NASA Goddard

The European Space Agency’s PROBA2 satellite captured this unusually detailed photo of the corona—plasma that can be millions of degrees hotter than the star’s actual surface.

Video: ESA

This sunspot, captured in ultraviolet by NASA’s Solar Dynamic Observatory in 2017, only looks small. That dark region of plasma churning in the sun’s magnetic field is actually several times bigger than Earth. Photograph: NASA/GSFC/Solar Dynamics Observatory

This is not Mordor; this is our very own star. Sometimes bursts of plasma like this one, called filaments, are actually visible from Earth’s surface with a good telescope. The Solar Dynamic Observatory caught this one in 2017. Photograph: NASA Goddard

A particularly active sunspot phase in October of 2013 gave the sun this spooky jack-o-lantern look. The brighter regions get hotter and more energetic as they interact more intensely with the sun’s magnetic field.

Photograph: NASA Goddard

In 2018, the Parker Solar Probe was still under construction in a clean room near Kennedy Space Center. The probe recently came within 15 million miles of the sun, and it’s now just two weeks away from a second flyby of the planet Venus that’ll whip it back around again—which means it had to be built to withstand scorching temperatures. Its heat shield, a specially made composite of lightweight superheated carbon foam, will bear the brunt, keeping instruments on the other side at nearly room temperature. Photograph: Leif Heimbold/NASA
Wise up with WIRED's collection of space photos here .
  • Meet the activists risking prison to film VR in factory farms
  • Everything you need to know about genetic testing
  • Ewoks are the most tactically advanced fighting force in Star Wars
  • Would you pay someone $40 to keep you focused on work ?
  • 15 passive-aggressive gifts for your terrible roommate
  • 👁 Will AI as a field "hit the wall" soon ? Plus, the latest news on artificial intelligence
  • 🏃🏽‍♀️ Want the best tools to get healthy? Check out our Gear team’s picks for the best fitness trackers , running gear (including shoes and socks ), and best headphones .