'We Will Finally Touch the Sun'
NASA explains next year's mission to the star's atmosphere
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted May 31, 2017 1:08 PM CDT
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This image made available by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory depicts NASA's Solar Probe Plus spacecraft approaching the sun.   (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory via AP)

(Newser) – NASA is going to the sun. More specifically, it's launching an unmanned probe next year that will travel closer to the star than any spacecraft has done previously. "It's a spacecraft loaded with technological breakthroughs that will solve many of the largest mysteries about our star," says Nicola Fox of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. In less scientific terms, per the Telegraph: "We will finally touch the sun." The nuts and bolts:

  • The mission: The 10-foot probe will launch in July or August of 2018 and eventually get to within 3.7 million miles of the sun, about seven times closer than any previous spacecraft. Eventually, it will be whizzing around the sun at a speed of 450,000 miles per hour, reports CNN. The mission ends in 2025.
  • Corona: The probe will actually fly into the outermost part of the sun's atmosphere, called the corona, per a mission overview at NASA that touts "humanity's first visit to a star."
  • The heat: The probe will rely on a 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite solar shield to help it withstand temperatures up to 2,550 degrees Fahrenheit, reports Orlando's WKMG. Instruments will remain at room temperature.

  • The name: The probe's name has been changed to the Parker Solar Probe to honor astrophysicist Eugene Parker, who's credited with discovering solar wind. Parker, who turns 90 in June, is a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, and the Guardian recounts that the theory he put forward in 1958 about a stream of charged particles flowing from the sun was once thought to be "crazy."
  • A first: This is the first time NASA has named a mission after a living scientist. "I'm certainly greatly honored," said the man himself, per Space.com.
  • Two puzzles: Scientists hope to better understand two things in particular: "How is the solar wind accelerated, and why is the ... corona so much hotter than the solar surface?" (It's 3 million degrees Fahrenheit vs. 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.)
  • Why it matters: Generally, solar storms are relatively harmless when they reach Earth, but these particle bursts occasionally wreak havoc on satellites and here on Earth, and they have the potential to be devastating. "The more we know about how these processes work, the better we can get at predicting when they will happen," writes Loren Grush at the Verge.

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