NASA solar spacecraft snaps first image from inside sun's atmosphere

The Parker Solar Probe zips down the sun's boulevard and asks, "Are you ready for your close-up?"

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Jackson Ryan is CNET's award-winning science editor. He used to be a scientist but he realized he was not very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Now he has the best job in the world, telling 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. Tweet him.
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NASA's Parker Solar Probe is on a mission to land the world's hottest high-five as it orbits the sun, zooming ever closer to our solar system's star.

Over 12 days in October and November, Parker sped through the corona -- the ultra-hot cosmic oven of atmosphere that surrounds the sun -- and snapped this absolute pearler of an image.

This is practically the first image from inside the sun. 

Enlarge Image
NASA/Naval Research Laboratory/Parker Solar Probe

OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but the image above was captured by Parker's WISPR (Wide-field Imager for Solar Probe) when the probe was a mere 16.9 million miles from the sun -- inside its corona. It clearly shows two distinct jets of solar material, known as coronal streamers, emanating from the left of the image. That bright spot in the distance is Mercury, while the black spots are artifacts of background correction.

The image was released in conjunction with a press conference held at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, where NASA scientists discussed what they hoped to learn from the probe as the first data begins filtering back to Earth. The first set of data began downlinking to Earth on Dec. 7, but radioing back the complete data set won't be complete until Parker undergoes a second flyby in April 2019. 

At four months old, the spacecraft has already had a busy working life. On Sept. 19, it beamed back its "first light" images from space, allowing NASA scientists and engineers the opportunity to ensure all its instruments were working as intended. Then in October, Parker smashed two long-standing records, becoming the closest object to the sun we've ever made and the fastest spacecraft in history.

That speed is important. Eventually the probe will travel so fast it will match the rotation speed of the sun. In such circumstances, the probe will be orbiting over the same region of the sun for short periods of time, giving NASA's scientists the opportunity to discount the effects of the sun's rotation on any data they may receive. 

With its suite of instruments examining the sun's electromagnetic fields, ions and energetic particles, the Parker Solar Probe is perfectly poised to reveal some of the sun's biggest secrets, like why the corona is so much hotter than the surface. Its mission continues until 2025. 

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