40 Telescopes Watched the Sun as the Parker Solar Probe Made its Most Recent Flyby
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40 Telescopes Watched the Sun as the Parker Solar Probe Made its Most Recent Flyby

Even if you’re millions of kilometers away from anything, you can still be watched in space. The Parker Solar Probe, which completed the 11th perihelion of its 24-perihelion journey on February 25th, is proof of this. Over 40 space and ground-based telescopes were watching the probe as it speeded past the Sun.

Parker was not visible through any of the telescopes. Even though the probe is the size of a bus, any further out observational platforms would be completely washed out by the Sun’s light. Those platforms that were looking were simply keeping an eye on the solar environment as the probe approached. As we reported last year, this type of multidisciplinary observational campaign is becoming more common.

The most recent Parker campaign was one of the best-coordinated. There were forty telescopes involved, with various sensors and wavelengths of interest. The newly commissioned Daniel K. Inouye Solar telescope in Hawai’i, as well as the Solar Orbiter, an ESA-managed sister solar observer, were both included in the campaign. MAVEN, a NASA-operated Mars orbiter, was enlisted in the observational campaign as well, allowing scientists to collect data from Mars’ perspective.

Some of those same observatories were pointing in the direction of one of Parker’s most exciting events in its three-and-a-half-year history. It was hit by a “large solar prominence” on February 15th, which bombarded the spacecraft with charged particles that would have destroyed lesser machines.

Parker was built specifically for turbulence like this, and its sensors were busy collecting data the entire time. As we reported late last year, the probe has already dealt with a lot of “hyper-velocity dust.” It will not, however, endanger the spacecraft; instead, it may cause some noise in the probe’s instruments.

Once the probe’s handlers have data in their hands, they can work out the instrumental noise. However, because sending and receiving signals from that close to the Sun is difficult, the data is currently stored primarily on the probe itself. Parker last checked in a few days after the most recent perihelion, but the next data transfer window runs from the end of March to the start of May.

Parker Solar Probe's instruments.
Parker Solar Probe’s instruments.
Credit: NASA/JHUAPL

It will be difficult to synchronize data from all of the different observatories, which is one of the main reasons why more multi-modal research hasn’t been done so far. As it hurtles around the largest object in our solar system, Parker is constantly setting new speed records. One of the main challenges for scientists looking to combine data from it with data from more stationary and farther away telescopes will undoubtedly be precisely positioning it as it does so.

However, that combination will provide insight into the ultraviolet, infrared, radio, and other spectra that Parker does not have the equipment to investigate. Although those observational capabilities aren’t always aimed at the Sun, solar activity is steadily increasing, making it more interesting to observe in whatever wavelengths are available. Parker will remain an important part of that effort for the duration of its mission, which is set to end in 2025.

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