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Springfield native turned astrophysicist part of historic solar mission

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NASA Goddard Media Studios
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The Parker Solar Probe nears the sun's corona.

History was made last year when a spacecraft touched the sun for the first time. A Springfield native turned astrophysicist was part of the scientific team behind the mission.

After more than 60 years of development, the Parker Solar Probe was launched in 2018. In April, it passed through the sun’s outer atmosphere, called the corona, a breakthrough for helping scientists better understand our closest star. The data was gathered, analyzed, and published in the following months, appearing in the December edition of Physical Review Letters.

"Three years after launch and decades after first conception, Parker has finally arrived," NASA said in a release.

"Unlike Earth, the Sun doesn’t have a solid surface. But it does have a superheated atmosphere, made of solar material bound to the Sun by gravity and magnetic forces. As rising heat and pressure push that material away from the Sun, it reaches a point where gravity and magnetic fields are too weak to contain it.

"That point, known as the Alfvén critical surface, marks the end of the solar atmosphere and beginning of the solar wind. Solar material with the energy to make it across that boundary becomes the solar wind, which drags the magnetic field of the Sun with it as it races across the solar system, to Earth and beyond. Importantly, beyond the Alfvén critical surface, the solar wind moves so fast that waves within the wind cannot ever travel fast enough to make it back to the Sun – severing their connection."

Among the scientists hailing the achievement is Tony Case. He grew up in Springfield, and now works with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. His team developed the probe’s instrument which gathers particles released from the sun, which helps them understand solar wind activity. Called the solar probe cup, Case described it as a "tuna can" but with great importance to learning more about this phenomenon.

Scientist Interview: Dr. Tony Case (Parker Solar Probe)

“So the probe will continue for another four or five more years in orbit around the sun. Basically, going back to the similar location that we've already been and making repeat measurements of that over and over," Case told KLCC. "The exception to that is we actually fly by Venus every once in a while. And that allows us to even get closer to the sun then we've got already”

The Parker Solar Probe will make several more visits to the sun's corona, and Case expects this research mission to continue for another 4-5 years depending on funding and the spacecraft's resilience as it navigates through intense conditions.

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NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Laboratory
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As Parker Solar Probe passed through the corona, the spacecraft flew by structures called coronal streamers. These structures can be seen as bright features moving upward in the upper images and angled downward in the lower row. Such a view is only possible because the spacecraft flew above and below the streamers inside the corona. Until now, streamers have only been seen from afar. They are visible from Earth during total solar eclipses.

Case now lives in Massachusetts, but still gets back to Springfield to swim in the McKenzie River and visit his parents. In a previous interview with KLCC, he said he doesn't dwell on barely surviving his injuries from the 1998 Thurston School shooting, preferring instead to focus on his research and brighter spots of his life, including family activities.

More on the Parker Solar Probe mission can be found here.

Copyright @2022, KLCC.

Brian Bull joined the KLCC News Team in June 2016. In his 25+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (19 regional), the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.