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Behold, the closest-ever photo of a coronal streamer

It was captured by the Parker Solar Probe, which is currently studying the star.

Behold, the closest-ever photo of a coronal streamer
NASA
  • NASA's Parker Solar Probe is currently traveling closer to the sun than any other spacecraft before it.
  • The probe is recording data on the star to help scientists learn more about the star and its volatile nature.
  • Also this week, NASA released the first images of its Mars InSight lander taken from space.

NASA's Parker Solar Probe has come closer to the sun than any human spacecraft before it, managing to enter the star's atmosphere to record data for the ambitious mission.

On November 8, the probe soared within about 15 million miles of the sun's surface. To illustrate how close that is, NASA researchers wrote: "If Earth was at one end of a yard-stick and the Sun on the other, Parker Solar Probe will make it to within four inches of the solar surface."

During the encounter, the probe's wide-field imager snapped the closest-ever photo of the sun emitting solar material, in an event known as a coronal streamer.

NASA

These events usually occur over regions undergoing increased solar activity, and this one appeared over the east limb of the sun and includes at least two visible rays. Jupiter, the bright spot toward the center of the photo, is also visible in the background.

The photo was shared at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union earlier this week.

"Heliophysicists have been waiting more than 60 years for a mission like this to be possible," said Nicola Fox, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Heliophysics is the study of the Sun and how it affects space near Earth, around other worlds and throughout the solar system. "The solar mysteries we want to solve are waiting in the corona."

What the Parker probe mission hopes to accomplish

The Parker Solar Probe is on an exploratory mission that could yield surprising findings for scientists, namely because no one's quite sure what exactly happens when a spacecraft gets so close to the sun. NASA hopes the mission will address three key questions:

"First: How is the sun's outer atmosphere, the corona, heated to temperatures about 300 times higher than the visible surface below?" NASA wrote in a blog post. "Second — how is the solar wind accelerated so quickly to the high speeds we observe? And finally, how do some of the sun's most energetic particles rocket away from the sun at more than half the speed of light?"

To answer these questions, the Parker probe must match the speed of the sun's rotation so it can hover over areas of interest, meaning it must fly faster than 213,000 miles per hour. Learning more about the star is important, given its tremendous influence on our planet and those in our solar system. NASA writes:

"The solar wind, its outflow of material, fills up the inner part of our solar system, creating a bubble that envelops the planets and extends far past the orbit of Neptune. Embedded in its energized particles and solar material, the solar wind carries with it the Sun's magnetic field. Additional one-off eruptions of solar material called coronal mass ejections also carry this solar magnetic field — and in both cases, this magnetized material can interact with Earth's natural magnetic field and cause geomagnetic storms. Such storms can trigger the aurora or even power outages, and other types of solar activity can cause communications problems, disrupt satellite electronics and even endanger astronauts — especially beyond the protective bubble of Earth's magnetic field."

NASA also releases first images of Mars InSight lander taken from space

This week, NASA published the first images taken of its Mars InSight lander, which touched down on the red planet in November and is designed to help scientists learn more about the formation of rocky planets. The images were taken from HiRISE, a camera onboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

Radical innovation: Unlocking the future of human invention

Ready to see the future? Nanotronics CEO Matthew Putman talks innovation and the solutions that are right under our noses.

Big Think LIVE

Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.

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Your body’s full of stuff you no longer need. Here's a list.

Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.

Image source: Ernst Haeckel
Surprising Science
  • An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
  • Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
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Quantum particles timed as they tunnel through a solid

A clever new study definitively measures how long it takes for quantum particles to pass through a barrier.

Image source: carlos castilla/Shutterstock
  • Quantum particles can tunnel through seemingly impassable barriers, popping up on the other side.
  • Quantum tunneling is not a new discovery, but there's a lot that's unknown about it.
  • By super-cooling rubidium particles, researchers use their spinning as a magnetic timer.

When it comes to weird behavior, there's nothing quite like the quantum world. On top of that world-class head scratcher entanglement, there's also quantum tunneling — the mysterious process in which particles somehow find their way through what should be impenetrable barriers.

Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

Nonetheless, "Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."

Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

Self-driving cars to race for $1.5 million at Indianapolis Motor Speedway ​

So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.

Illustration of cockpit of a self-driving car

Indy Autonomous Challenge
Technology & Innovation
  • The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
  • The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
  • The organizers say they hope to advance the field of driverless cars and "inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
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Mind & Brain

The dangers of the chemical imbalance theory of depression

A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.

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