Solar probe to "touch" sun's atmosphere

The Parker spacecraft will explore the sun.
The Parker spacecraft will explore the sun.
Image: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
Any sentence about a spacecraft “touching” the sun sounds like the setup for a bad joke. Why does NASA plan to fly a spacecraft to the sun at night? Answer: Because it is too hot by day.

    But NASA is not joking when it describes the Parker Solar Probe -- the first-ever mission to touch the sun’s atmosphere. The compact-car sized spacecraft, slated to launch in 2018, is designed to travel into the sun's atmosphere, roughly 4 million miles from the sun's surface, according to the space agency.Here is the rundown:

About the name: The spacecraft’s name honors Eugene N. Parker, 90, professor emeritus, University of Chicago's Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. In 1958, Parker discovered solar wind, according to the university. NASA defines solar wind as the “the outflow of particles from the sun. … Solar particles speed outward from the sun, pushing back the material in the rest of space, known as the interstellar medium.”

Why will this spacecraft make history? If successful, it will fly closer to the sun than any spacecraft before it. It will be as close as 3.9 million miles to our star’s surface, according to NASA. And it will be going fast too -- traveling at speeds of 430,000 mph.

What will protect the spacecraft? A 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite shield will protect the the spacecraft as it encounters temperatures of nearly 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Why does NASA want to do this? By diving into extreme heat and radiation, the spacecraft will send back information that will allow scientists to understand more about how stars work. On a practical level, NASA aims to improve forecasts of space weather that impact satellites -- and, consequently, technology on Earth.


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