NASA is going to the Sun

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Illustration of the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft approaching the sun.  Credits: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

NASA announced Wednesday that it will send a solar probe to “touch” the sun.

The $1.5 billion effort will involve sending the newly named Parker Solar Probe (PSP) 7 times closer to the sun than any other spacecraft has gone before. This probe will have to face solar radiation, sunlight, and heat that’s 3000 times more intense than on the Earth.

Until recently, that wasn’t feasible. But, scientists recently developed a state-of-the-art lightweight carbon composite that NASA engineers believe will hold up against the brutal conditions that close to our star. They crafted the material into a 4.5-inch-thick "ram" for the probe, which will always face the sun, absorb and deflect solar radiation, and protect a suite of gadgets behind it in room-temperature shade.

The PSP is named after Eugene Parker, the now 89-year-old scientist who first discovered the solar wind back in the 1950s. The solar wind is the term for the high heated microscopic particles that jettison off the star and careen toward Earth at thousands of miles per second. It’s these particles that Earth deflects with our atmosphere and our magnetic field, allowing life to exist on the planet, and also giving us the northern and southern lights.

So, the mission is twofold; why does the sun have a solar wind at all (hopefully this tells us why it travels so quickly and is so much hotter than the sun itself), and how does the outer atmosphere of the star, called the corona, inexplicably heat up to millions of degrees?

If these questions are answered, scientists hope it’s just a domino effect that will answer other questions, most of them having to do with protecting us from solar storms (events where a massive amount of particles get ejected from the Sun and can head toward Earth which can cause numerous issues on Earth including massive power failures and satellite disruptions).

To do this, the PSP will make 24 different flybys reaching speeds of more than 425,000 mph, which would be like traveling from New York to L. A. in about 15 seconds. The probe is scheduled to launch sometime between July 31 and the middle of August in 2018 and make its first flyby in November.  It will start out on the outside of the corona and work its way in over the next few years, culminating with its closest flyby in December 2024, which would put it at a distance just four times the Sun’s diameter.

The probe is getting finished up now and will begin nearly a yearlong of rigorous testing starting near the end of the summer.