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A year ago, scientists and amateurs across the country scrambled to gather precious data about the sun during the Great American Solar Eclipse — and today, many of the same sun-lovers are eagerly following the progress of NASA's first spacecraft to "touch" the star that shapes our lives.
Three total solar eclipses will grace Earth during that spacecraft's seven-year mission studying the sun. Those events will reveal the otherwise-invisible solar atmosphere known as the corona— precisely the part of the sun that the mission is focusing on.
Data - Parker - Solar - Probe - Gathers
The data the Parker Solar Probe gathers will be unlike any scientists have ever been able to access. "It's literally like flying through and putting your hand outside the spacecraft and collecting observations directly as opposed to being 93 million miles [150 million kilometers] away and having really amazing telescopes that give us a unique perspective," Alex Young, a solar scientist at NASA, told Space.com. "You've got to be there up close and personal and measuring these things directly. Otherwise, you don't have a complete picture."
That's not to say eclipse data hasn't been valuable, of course. For more than a century, scientists have chased eclipses wherever celestial geometry has led them, desperate for a glimpse of the fickle corona. That feature was only ever identified because of eclipse observations. Without the moon blocking out most of the sun's brightness, the corona is impossible to see at all, much less in any detail.
Things - Eclipse - Structure - Corona - Young
"One of the things that we gain from a total solar eclipse is we see the detailed structure [of the corona]," Young said. "Having this global viewpoint of the basic structure of the sun's atmosphere and then having the detailed observations of Parker Solar Probe really allows us to fill in the pieces of the puzzle. This really is a grand puzzle."
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