NASA gives sneak peek of ‘mission to touch the sun’

LAUREL, MARYLAND, UNITED STATES (SEPTEMBER 25, 2017) (REUTERS) – Scientists unveiled the Parker Solar Probe at a laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, on Monday (September 25), where the spacecraft is being prepared to make an unprecedented plunge into the sun’s atmosphere.

“We’re going to go into the corona, which is the home to many mysteries that have baffled scientists for decades and decades,” explained project scientist Nicky Fox at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab.

The spacecraft will have to survive temperatures as high as 2,500 Fahrenheit (1,371 Celsius), impacts by supersonic particles and powerful radiation as it circles as close as 4 million miles (7 million km) to the sun.

Data sent back to Earth some 89 million miles (140 million km) away will help scientists figure out why the sun’s atmosphere, or corona, is hotter than its surface.

The Parker Solar Probe’s mission system engineer, Jim Kinnison, said there is still a lot of testing to do before its scheduled July 2018 launch.

“It’s the reason why we’re successful is because we try to think of everything,” he told Reuters.

The mission, formerly known as the Solar Probe Plus, was approved in 2014.

The spacecraft was renamed to honor University of Chicago physicist Eugene Parker, who in 1958 correctly predicted the existence of the solar wind, a continuous stream of charged particles that come off the sun and permeate the solar system.

The spacecraft, designed and built by the Johns Hopkins University laboratory, will fly around Venus seven times to get itself into orbit around the sun in December 2024. NASA is paying about $1.5 billion to build and launch the spacecraft.

The probe is expected to orbit the sun 24 times, edging closer on each pass. The size of a small car, it will be outfitted with five science instruments to measure and sample the sun’s corona.

“On launch day, I know I’m going to be a mess,” Fox laughed, likening it to sending a child off to college. “But I know she’s going to write and she’s going to send lots of data, so it’s going to be extremely, extremely exciting.”