NASA's Parker Solar Probe could revolutionize understanding of the sun

Eugene Parker at the University of Chicago               CBS News

"Behold, NASA's Parker Solar Probe inside one half of its 62.7-foot tall fairing, ready to launch on August 11 to touch the Sun", NASA wrote on Twitter on August 1.

To successfully reach the sun, the Parker Solar Probe needs to leave Earth incredibly quickly - hence the massive rocket, which is second in launch power only to SpaceX's brand new Falcon Heavy rocket.

It is the first NASA mission to be named after a living person.

Thomas Zurbuchen, from NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said: "By studying our star, we can learn not only more about the Sun".

Several probes launched since the sixties have confirmed theories about the Sun's magnetic field and the existence of solar winds, and have allowed observing the behavior of the solar corona, which reaches temperatures higher than the sun's surface.

"Previous missions have been really important for solar science as we study from afar - and we can learn a lot from studying from afar - but Parker Solar Probe is actually going and touching, nearly kissing the sun, so we can learn so much more", said Elizabeth Congdon, the thermal protection system lead engineer at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

The space agency is preparing to get closer to the sun than any other mission in history.

It will blast off inside a Delta IV rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

As soon as the probe is launched, it must first get a gravity assist, so it will loop around Venus and then slow down towards the sun. At less than 4 million miles away from the sun, the Parker Solar Probe will be inside the sun's outer atmosphere, or corona, measuring and sampling particles right on site. The heat will not melt the probe, because the engineers have created a powerful shield that will keep everything in the probe at 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius).

"We hide in the shade underneath the shield", McComas said.

Likewise, scientists hope the probe's small-scale, short-term analysis will improve space weather prediction models.

She added: "We've been studying the Sun for decades, and now we're finally going to go where the action is".

It will hitch a ride through the atmosphere before being blasted into deep space by the Delta IV Heavy rocket.

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