NASA is sending a spacecraft straight into the sun's glittering crown, an atmospheric region so hot and harsh any normal visitor would wither.
A space probe that aims to be the first to "touch the sun" is slated to launch this weekend, marking the next step in an effort that scientists say has been 60 years in the making.NASA's Parker Solar Probe will lift off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Saturday, Aug. 11 at 3:33 a.m. EDT.
The U.S. got a glimpse of the sun's glowing, spiky crown, or corona, during last August's coast-to-coast total solar eclipse.
"The sun is full of mysteries", said Nicky Fox, project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab.
Parker's 2.4-metre heat shield is just 4-and-a-half-inch thick.
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It's created to take solar punishment like never before, thanks to its revolutionary heat shield that's capable of withstanding 1,370 degrees Celsius. As one scientist notes, this is a shield Captain America would envy. It will fly by our solar system's hottest planet seven times over seven years, using the gravity of Venus to shrink its own oval orbit and draw increasingly closer to the sun. "Our first fly-by to Venus is in the fall, in September".
At its closest approach, the probe will be just 3.8 million miles above the sun's surface. Helios 2 got within 43 million kilometres of the sun in 1976. This first pass will take place at a distance of 15m miles. In seven years, the probe will be within four million miles of the sun's surface. Parker will come within 15.5 million miles (25 million kilometers) in November and then start beating its own record.
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 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.
The closer, the better for figuring out why the corona is hundreds of times hotter than the Sun's surface. In 1958, he hypothesized the existence of the solar wind, the constant rush of highly charged particles that constantly streams off the sun.