Historic NASA mission will be first to 'touch the sun'

An artist’s rendering of the Parker Solar Probe nearing the Sun

The powerful rocket is needed to propel the payload, NASA's Parker Solar Probe, to the sun. The probe will orbit around the Sun 24 times, its closest point ultimately being 3.8 million miles.

The one-point-five billion dollar mission aims to discover why the corona, the sun's atmosphere., is so much hotter than it's surface, and also to investigate the cause of solar winds.

The shield should enable the spacecraft to survive its close shave with the centre of our solar system, coming within 6.16 million kilometres of the Sun's surface. And as it draws near, the spacecraft will be accelerated by our star's intense gravity to a stupendous speed - estimated to be 430,000 miles per hour.That will make the probe the fastest human-made object, eclipsing the twin Helios probes that zoomed along at 157,000 miles per hour on their sun-circling trajectories.

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NASA is sending a spacecraft straight into the sun's glittering crown, an atmospheric region so hot and harsh any normal visitor would wither.

Scientists have wanted to build a spacecraft like this for more than 60 years, but only in recent years did the heat shield technology advance enough to be capable of protecting sensitive instruments, according to Fox.

"The sun is full of mysteries", said Nicky Fox, project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab.

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Over the course of its mission, the Parker Solar Probe will orbit the sun 24 times while being subjected to extreme heat and radiation, with temperatures expected to reach 1,377C, almost hot enough to melt steel.

The spacecraft is named for Eugene Parker, the scientist who first predicted the existence of the solar wind - fast-moving solar particles that stream through the entire solar system.

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. Despite skepticism, NASA's Mariner 2 spacecraft proved Parker right in 1962. Parker is now 91 years old and at Cape Canaveral with his family to witness his first launch - a Delta IV Heavy rocket with the spacecraft bearing his name.

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This is the first NASA spacecraft to be named after someone still alive. "But of course, I enjoy it".

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