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NASA ready for trip to the sun

11 August 2018
NASA ready for trip to the sun

The US space agency launches its Parker Solar Probe on Saturday, which will travel closer to the Sun than any mission before, to unlock the secrets of fierce radioactive storms which threaten Earth. While the shield will be facing temperatures of up to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, the spacecraft will be at a toasty but tolerable 85 degrees.

The Parker Solar Probe will endure tremendous heat while zooming through the solar corona to study this outermost part of the stellar atmosphere that gives rise to the solar wind.

Scientists have wanted to build a spacecraft like this for more than 60 years, but only in recent years did the heat shield technology advance enough to be capable of protecting sensitive instruments, according to Fox.

It will take six years for the probe to make to reach its closest point to the sun, in 2024, by using Venus' gravity to bring itself nearer and nearer to the star. "To send it into such brutal conditions is highly ambitious", said Nicola Fox, a project scientist from the Johns Hopkins University applied physics laboratory. "We're actually making our first pass of the sun in November, getting our first data back by hopefully December", he said. The current close-to-the-sun champ, NASA's former Helios 2, got within 27 million miles (43 million kilometers) in 1976.

Scientists expect the $1.5 billion mission to shed light not only on our own dynamic sun, but the billions of other yellow dwarf stars - and other types of stars - out there in the Milky Way and beyond.

NASA scientists also hope to answer one ongoing mystery: why the sun's atmosphere is 300 times hotter than the surface itself. In 1958, he hypothesized the existence of the solar wind, the constant rush of highly charged particles that constantly streams off the sun. Many were skeptical and told him to read up on it first "so you don't make these killer mistakes", he recalls. It will hitch a ride into space aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket, and an upper stage boost from the rocket will send it hurtling out of Earth's orbit and on a path to Venus, eventually moving at speeds up to 700,000 kmh (430,000 mph) - faster than any probe that came before it.

This is the first-ever spacecraft to be named after someone still alive. "At my age, it gets fatiguing".