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

Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

The powerful rocket is needed to propel the payload, NASA's Parker Solar Probe, to the sun. "To send it into such brutal conditions is highly ambitious", said Nicola Fox, a project scientist from the Johns Hopkins University applied physics laboratory.

NASA postponed until Sunday the launch of the first ever spacecraft to fly directly toward the Sun on a mission to plunge into our star's sizzling atmosphere and unlock its mysteries. And it is like never before; thanks to its revolutionary heat shield which is capable of withstanding 1,370 degrees Celsius.

The spacecraft will hit 6,90,000 kmph in the corona at closest approach.

Sixty years ago, a young astrophysicist at the University of Chicago, Eugene Parker, proposed the existence of solar wind.

This is the first-ever spacecraft to be named after someone still alive. "Our first fly-by to Venus is in the fall, in September". The spacecraft is now scheduled to launch tomorrow (Aug. 11) at 3:33 a.m. (0733 GMT).

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 current close-to-the-sun champ, NASA's former Helios 2, got within 43 million kilometres in 1976.

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NASA's car-sized, $1.5 billion Parker Solar Probe is scheduled to launch on a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida during a 65-minute launch window that opens at 3:33 am (0733 GMT). The probe will use Venus' gravity to slow itself down as it makes its close approaches with the sun.

The spacecraft eventually will run out of fuel and, no longer be able to keep its heat shield pointed toward the Sun, will burn and break apart - except perhaps for the rugged heat shield.

It weighs a mere 635 kg. And it needs to be, because it takes an enormous amount of energy to get to our final orbit around the Sun.

The probe, named after American solar astrophysicist Eugene Newman Parker, is set to use seven Venus fly-bys over almost seven years to steadily reduce its orbit around the Sun, using instruments created to image the solar wind and study electric and magnetic fields, coronal plasma and energetic particles.

We'll be going where no spacecraft has dared go before - within the corona of a star.

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

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