A new NASA mission aims to brush by the sun, coming closer than any spacecraft in history to its scorching heat and radiation, the US space agency said on Wednesday.
After liftoff from Kennedy Space Center in Florida in July next year, the Parker Solar Probe is to become the first to fly directly into the sun’s atmosphere, known as the corona.
The plan for the uncrewed spacecraft is to orbit within 6.3 million kilometers of the sun’s surface.
Temperatures in that region exceed 1,377oC, for which the spacecraft is equipped with a 11.43cm-thick carbon-composite shield.
Roughly the size of a small car, the probe is to make seven flybys of the sun over a seven-year period, in what NASA described as a “mission of extremes.”
The spacecraft is to travel at 692,000kph — like going from New York City to Tokyo in less than a minute.
Scientists hope its data will improve forecasts of solar storms and space weather events that affect life, satellites and astronauts in space.
The spacecraft is to measure plasma waves and high-energy particles, and carry a white-light imager to capture details of the structures through which it is to fly, said Nicola Fox, mission project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
“We will brush closely by” the sun, she said at an event in Chicago to unveil the mission, which NASA has touted as promising to provide humanity’s closest-ever observations of a star.
“You can learn so much from looking out the window,” Fox said. “You can see the sun is shining, you can see the birds are singing, but until you actually go out, you have no idea quite how hot it is out there or how windy it is, or what the conditions are like.”
“I think we have really come as far as we can with looking at things, and now it is time to go up and pay it a visit,” she said.
A 20-day launch window for the spacecraft’s liftoff atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket opens on July 31 next year.
Initially called Solar Probe Plus, the mission was renamed after the astrophysicist Eugene Parker, 89, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago.
He published the first paper to describe solar wind — high-speed matter and magnetism constantly escaping the sun — in 1958.
“This is the first time NASA has named a spacecraft for a living individual,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
“It’s a testament to the importance of his body of work, founding a new field of science that also inspired my own research and many important science questions NASA continues to study and further understand every day,” he said.
Parker, who is days away from his 90th birthday, described the mission as “very exciting.”
“One would like to have some more detailed measurements of what’s going on in the solar wind,” he said.
“I’m sure that there will be some surprises,” he said. “There always are.”
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