A NASA spacecraft zoomed toward the sun Sunday on an unprecedented quest to get closer to our star than anything ever sent before. As soon as this fall, the Parker Solar Probe will fly straight through the wispy edges of the sun's corona that was visible during last August's total solar eclipse. It will get within 3.8 million miles of the surface in the years ahead, reports the AP, staying cool despite the extreme heat and radiation, and allowing scientists to vicariously explore the sun in a way never before possible. "We're in for some learning over the next several years," said Eugene Parker, the 91-year-old astrophysicist for whom the spacecraft is named; he's the first living person NASA has given such an honor. From Earth, it is 93 million miles to the sun, and the Parker probe will be within 4% of that distance at its closest. That will be seven times closer than previous spacecraft.
Protected by a revolutionary new carbon heat shield and other high-tech wonders, the spacecraft will zip past Venus in October. That will set up the first solar encounter in November. Altogether, the Parker probe will make 24 close approaches to the sun on the seven-year, $1.5 billion undertaking. The Delta IV Heavy rocket thundered into the pre-dawn darkness, thrilling onlookers for miles as it climbed. A mission to get close up and personal with our star has been on NASA's books since 1958. The trick was making the spacecraft compact and light enough to travel at incredible speeds, while surviving the sun's punishing environment and the extreme change in temperature when the spacecraft is out near Venus. "We've had to wait so long for our technology to catch up with our dreams," project scientist Nicola Fox of Johns Hopkins University said. Adds Parker: "I'll bet you 10 bucks it works."
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