NASA Sending Probe to 'Touch' the Sun—Here's Why

The sun’s searing heat has made a mission into the star’s atmosphere impossible until now.

NASA has embarked on many successful missions—from rocketing astronauts to the moon to launching the first spacecraft to reach interstellar space. But it hasn’t yet sent a mission to the sun. The deterrent? Our nearest star’s searing heat.

The surface of the sun is 5,538 °C, but its outer atmosphere—the corona—soars to some 1.9 million degrees Celsius.

WATCH: EARTH-ORBITING TELESCOPE SEES FAR SIDE OF SUN How can a telescope orbiting Earth detect light emitted from the far side of the sun? NASA scientists tried to figure out the answer after the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope recorded gamma rays, the highest-energy form of light, originating from solar flares on the far side of the sun.

“This temperature inversion is a big mystery that no one has been able to explain,” says Nicola Fox, project scientist for the Parker Solar Probe, the NASA mission that aims to finally get close to the sun.

Today, NASA announced that for the first time in its history, a spacecraft is being formally named after a living person—previously known as Solar Probe Plus, the Parker Solar Probe was renamed for Eugene Parker, the astrophysicist who discovered solar wind in 1958.

The mission is made possible by a shield constructed from a carbon-carbon composite, which will keep the probe’s instruments safe in the 70-degree range. Launching as early as July 31, 2018, the probe will make 24 orbits of the sun. It will get within four million miles of the star with the gravitational assist of seven Venus flybys.

PHOTO: NASA/SDO. GRAPHIC: DAISY CHUNG, NGM STAFF
SOURCE: JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY APPLIED PHYSICS LABORATORY

That’s close enough to find answers to the sun’s other big mystery: what creates the solar wind, the charged particles that accelerate from the sun and wreak havoc on Earth’s electrical systems. 

“We see the sun every day, but we don’t know much about it,” says Fox. “The sun is the last major place for us to go.”

Header Image: PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA/SDO

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