Nasa prepares daring mission to 'touch the Sun'

Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

This handout picture released by NASA on August 8, 2018, shows the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket payload fairing is seen with the NASA and Parker Solar Probe emblems, at Launch Complex 37, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on August 8, 2018.

The project was proposed in the year 1958 to a brand-new Nasa, and "60 years later, and it's becoming a reality", said project manager Andy Driesman, also of Johns Hopkins, which designed and built the spacecraft.

At 91, renowned solar scientist Eugene Parker is experiencing just that this weekend as NASA launches its Parker Solar Probe, a seven-year, $1.5 billion mission to "touch the sun". And it is like never before; thanks to its revolutionary heat shield which is capable of withstanding 1,370 degrees Celsius.

On each close approach to the sun, the probe will sample the solar wind, study the sun's corona, and provide close-up observations from around the star.

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The Sun may be granting us life but it also has the power to play havoc with spacecraft in orbit, and communications and electronics on Earth.

The probe's mission is to dip into the solar atmosphere and deduce how the rarefied gasses there are heated to millions of degrees centigrade when the solar surface itself is just 6,000°C. Among other things, the spacecraft will carry a microchip with more than a million names on it.

Over the course of about seven years, the spacecraft will orbit the sun about 24 times, eventually flying just 3.8 million miles above the star's surface at its closest point. "Our first fly-by to Venus is in the fall, in September".

Helios 2 got within 43 million km of the sun in 1976. So really the only way we can now do it is to do this daring mission to plunge into the corona. The probe will use Venus' gravity to slow itself down as it makes its close approaches with the sun.

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That's a relatively light spacecraft.

The probe, named after American solar astrophysicist Eugene Newman Parker, is set to use seven Venus fly-bys over almost seven years to steadily reduce its orbit around the Sun, using instruments created to image the solar wind and study electric and magnetic fields, coronal plasma and energetic particles.

A LEARNING OPPORTUNITY. Ultimately, the more we can learn about the Sun, the better.

As NASA explains, the probe's first challenge will be to cancel out the speed at which the earth is moving in relation to the sun.

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