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NASA Sending Probe to 'Touch' the Sun—Here's Why

The sun’s searing heat has made a mission into the star’s atmosphere impossible until now.

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NASA has embarked on many successful missions—from rocketing astronauts to the moon to launching the first spacecraft to reach interstellar space. But it hasn’t yet sent a mission to the sun. The deterrent? Our nearest star’s searing heat.

The surface of the sun is 10,000°F, but its outer atmosphere—the corona—soars to some 3.5 million degrees Fahrenheit.

WATCH: EARTH-ORBITING TELESCOPE SEES FAR SIDE OF SUN

How can a telescope orbiting Earth detect light emitted from the far side of the sun? NASA scientists tried to figure out the answer after the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope recorded gamma rays, the highest-energy form of light, originating from solar flares on the far side of the sun.

“This temperature inversion is a big mystery that no one has been able to explain,” says Nicola Fox, project scientist for the Parker Solar Probe, the NASA mission that aims to finally get close to the sun.

Today, NASA announced that for the first time in its history, a spacecraft is being formally named after a living person—previously known as Solar Probe Plus, the Parker Solar Probe was renamed for Eugene Parker, the astrophysicist who discovered solar wind in 1958.

The mission is made possible by a shield constructed from a carbon-carbon composite, which will keep the probe’s instruments safe in the 70-degree range. Launching as early as July 31, 2018, the probe will make 24 orbits of the sun. It will get within four million miles of the star with the gravitational assist of seven Venus flybys.

Mission into

the heat of the sun

The Parker Solar Probe is scheduled to launch on

July 31, 2018. The mission’s trajectory includes

seven flybys of the planet Venus, which will

decrease the probe’s orbital speed, allowing it to

get as close as four million miles from the sun, about

eight times closer than any previous spacecraft.

The probe will make 24 orbits of the sun over its

seven-year mission.

Launch

First

solar flyby

July 31,

2018

SUN

Nov. 1, 2018

First Venus flyby

First closest

approach

Sept. 28, 2018

Dec. 19, 2024

Parker Solar Probe

Solar-probe cup

Measures speed, density, and temperature of

solar wind.

Thermal shield

Protects the probe from temperatures

nearing 2500°F. The carbon-carbon

composite shield is eight feet wide

and just 4.5 inches thick.

Solar panels

Generate power.

Wide-field imager

Captures images of sun’s corona and solar wind.

Charged-particle detector

Analyzes origin, speed, and movement

of particles.

Magnetometers

Measure magnetic field of corona from various

spots on boom.

MISSION INTO THE

HEAT OF THE SUN

The Parker Solar Probe is scheduled to launch on

July 31, 2018. The mission’s trajectory includes

seven flybys of the planet Venus, which will

decrease the probe’s orbital speed, allowing it to

get as close as four million miles from the sun, about

eight times closer than any previous spacecraft.

The probe will make 24 orbits of the sun over its

seven-year mission.

Launch

First

solar flyby

SUN

July 31,

2018

Nov. 1, 2018

First Venus flyby

First closest

approach

Sept. 28, 2018

Dec. 19, 2024

Solar-probe cup

Measures speed, density, and

temperature of solar wind.

Thermal shield

Protects the probe from temperatures

nearing 2500°F. The carbon-carbon

composite shield is eight feet wide

and just 4.5 inches thick.

Solar panels

Generate power.

Wide-field imager

Captures images of sun’s corona and solar wind.

Charged-particle detector

Analyzes origin, speed, and movement of particles.

Magnetometers

Measure magnetic field of corona from various spots on boom.

That’s close enough to find answers to the sun’s other big mystery: what creates the solar wind, the charged particles that accelerate from the sun and wreak havoc on Earth’s electrical systems. (Read "How Sun-Watchers Stopped World War III in 1967.")

“We see the sun every day, but we don’t know much about it,” says Fox. “The sun is the last major place for us to go.”