NASA counts down to launch of first spacecraft to ‘touch Sun’

Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

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.

The car-sized probe, which will fly closer to the sun than any other man-made object, is set to blast off at 3:33am eastern daylight time (8:33am BST) from Cape Canaveral, Florida on August 11.

Scientists hope to unlock mysteries such as why the sun's corona, the outermost layer of its atmosphere, is hotter than its surface. And as it draws near, the spacecraft will be accelerated by our star's intense gravity to a stupendous speed - estimated to be 430,000 miles per hour.That will make the probe the fastest human-made object, eclipsing the twin Helios probes that zoomed along at 157,000 miles per hour on their sun-circling trajectories.

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.

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Additionally, the Sun is the only star we can study up-close, and any insights we glean from the Parker Solar Probe could help us better understand how other stars function. The spacecraft and its suite of delicate instruments will be protected from the sun's extreme heat by a carbon fiber heat shield.

NASA says it's ready for a historic trip to the sun this weekend.

Understanding more about solar activity could help scientists forecast the large eruptions from the sun that pose a threat to satellite and communications systems.

Image: The spacecraft can withstand enormous heat.

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