Photos taken by the Wide-Field Imager for Parker Solar Probe (WISPR) showing the solar wind streaming past the spacecraft. These flows of energy can carry small grains of dust away from the sun and even out of the solar system entirely. (Credit: NASA/Naval Research Laboratory/Parker Solar Probe)

Researchers from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado Boulder are diving into the dusty environment that surrounds the sun—a search that could help to reveal how planets like Earth come into being.

The pursuit comes by way of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe—a pioneering mission that has taken scientists closer to Earth’s home star than any spacecraft to date. Over two years, the probe has circled the sun six times, hitting maximum speeds of roughly 290,000 miles per hour.

In the process, the Parker team has learned a lot about the microscopic grains of dust that lie just beyond the sun’s atmosphere, said David Malaspina, a space plasma physicist at LASP. In new research, for example, he and his colleagues discovered that the densities of these bits of rock and ice seem to vary wildly over the span of months—not something scientists were expecting.

“Every time we go into a new orbit, and we think we understand what we’re seeing around the sun, nature goes and surprises us,” said Malaspina, also an assistant professor in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences.

He presented the group’s results this week at the 2020 virtual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

Malaspina said that dust can give researchers an unexpected, and tiny, window into the processes that formed Earth and its neighboring planets more than 4.5 billion years ago.

“By learning how our star processes dust, we can extrapolate that to other solar systems to learn more about planet formation and how a cloud of dust becomes a solar system,” he said.

Read the complete article