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NASA solar probe becomes first spacecraft to 'touch the sun'

The Parker Solar Probe entered a region of space no spacecraft had ever been to before -- and survived.

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Jackson Ryan Former Science Editor
Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Jackson Ryan
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The Parker Solar Probe is visiting an the extremely hot environment around the sun, known as the corona.

NASA GSFC/CIL/Brian Monroe

After spending 990 days speeding through the solar system and zipping around Venus and our home star, NASA's Parker Solar Probe has achieved the headline goal of its mission: It "touched the sun."

More specifically, an instrument aboard the probe, which was launched on Aug. 12, 2018, notified scientists back on Earth that the spacecraft had crossed a critical threshold and was within the sun's corona -- a furnace of unfathomable proportions, where temperatures can reach up to 3 million degrees Fahrenheit.

The announcement was made at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in New Orleans on Tuesday.

Michael Stevens, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics (CfA), Harvard and the Smithsonian, explained that the probe had to cross the Alfvén point, a fuzzy layer where the sun's magnetic field holds the star's plasma and wind tightly. An instrument on Parker, developed by CfA, determined that Parker had passed the point three times on April 28 -- entering the corona and high-fiving the sun.

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Watch this: NASA's Parker Probe: Everything you need to know about the plan to 'touch the sun'

Parker is a remarkable probe. It's the fastest laboratory ever built, using gravity to swing around Venus and the sun and to gather speed across its orbit. It's also the closest human-built object to the sun -- its recent closest approach, in November, put it within 5.3 million miles of the sun. For reference, Mercury is around six times further away, at 36 million miles.

There are dangers in cozying up to the star. Earlier this year, scientists working with Parker reported that the probe was enduring "plasma explosions" after being bombarded by space dust. Parker has a state-of-the-art heat shield that keeps it from overheating, though the CfA instrument that deemed Parker had touched the sun is exposed to the elements.

Parker Solar Probe
NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

Though the solar squeeze is an important milestone for Parker, there's still much to learn about the sun. Parker will continue to swing by the sun, collecting data from within the corona about the solar wind and plasma, unraveling some of the solar system's big stellar mysteries. In 2023, it'll get even closer, coming within just 4.9 million miles. As long as it survives those plasma explosions, its closest approach will occur three years from now when it comes within 4.3 million miles.