NASA poised to launch first Sun-skimming spaceship

NASA launch Parker Solar Probe spacecraft

Understanding more about solar activity could help scientists forecast the large eruptions from the sun that pose a threat to satellite and communications systems. "It's very important for us to be able to predict the weather in the same simple way we predict the weather on Earth", explains Alex Young, a NASA scientist.

Over the course of its mission, the Parker Solar Probe will orbit the sun 24 times while being subjected to extreme heat and radiation, with temperatures expected to reach 1,377C, almost hot enough to melt steel.

Thomas Zurbuchen, from NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said: "By studying our star, we can learn not only more about the Sun".

Mission managers say that may sound like a lot but is really quite a close shave, given the sweltering conditions out there.

The probe will travel at 430,000 miles an hour, faster than any spacecraft in history, and use Venus's gravity over the course of seven years to gradually bring its orbit closer to the sun. The Sun-facing side of the probe will endure temperatures of about 1,370 degrees Celsius.

An artist rendition of NASA's Parker Solar Probe observing the Sun.

Scientists want to know why the corona is 300 times hotter than the surface of the sun. The spacecraft's payload will be near room temperature.

Dr Nicky Fox, project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, said: "We've been studying the Sun for decades, and now we're finally going to go where the action is".

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Previous missions have never got so close to the sphere of hot plasma since Helios 2 came within 27 miles of the sun's surface in 1976. In the Parker Solar Mission, a car-shaped spacecraft will orbit the sun's corona.

The probe will fly into the outer corona and is only able to get that close because of modern engineering, Garvin said.

To perform these unprecedented investigations, the spacecraft and instruments will be protected from the Sun's heat by a 4.5-inch-thick (11.43 cm) carbon-composite shield, which will need to withstand temperatures outside the spacecraft that reach almost 2,500 F (1,377 C).

According to NASA, PSP will carry four groups of instruments created to study magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles and imagine the solar wind.

There is also a white light imager, taking pictures of what the spacecraft is about to "plough through", said Fox.

"The goal is to have the instruments on all the time but the prime science gathering for us is about 11 days", she told reporters ahead of the launch.

A 45-minute launch window opens on Saturday at 3:48am local time (1:18pm IST).

The historic launch will take place at Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

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