CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A new NASA mission aims to brush by the sun, coming closer than any spacecraft in history to its scorching heat and radiation in order to reveal how stars are made, the US space agency said Wednesday.
After liftoff from Kennedy Space Center in Florida in July 2018, the Parker Solar Probe will become the first to fly directly into the sun’s atmosphere, known as the corona.
The plan for the unmanned spacecraft is to orbit within 3.9 million miles (6.3 million kilometers) of the sun’s surface.
Temperatures in that region exceed 2,500 Fahrenheit (1,377 Celsius), for which the spacecraft is equipped with a 4.5-inch-thick (11.43 cm) carbon-composite shield.
Roughly the size of a small car, the probe will make seven flybys of the sun over a seven-year period, in what NASA described as a “mission of extremes.”
Traveling at a speed of 430,000 mph, the spacecraft will move fast — 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 on Earth, satellites and astronauts in space.
The space agency announced Wednesday that the red-hot mission would be named after Eugene Parker, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. It’s the first NASA spacecraft to be named after a researcher who is still alive, noted the agency’s science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen.
The probe will fly right into the solar atmosphere, considerably closer to the sun than any other spacecraft, subjecting the probe to brutal heat and radiation like no other man-made structure before. The materials weren’t available until now to undertake such a grueling mission.
The purpose is to study the sun’s outer atmosphere and better understand how stars like ours work.
NASA spacecraft have traveled inside the orbit of Mercury, the innermost planet.
“But until you actually go there and touch the sun, you really can’t answer these questions,” like why is the corona — the outer plasma-loaded atmosphere — hotter than the actual surface of the sun, said mission project scientist Nicola Fox of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.
Parker Solar Probe — formerly known as Solar Probe Plus — will venture seven times closer than any previous spacecraft, Fox said.
The announcement came during a University of Chicago ceremony honoring Parker, who turns 90 on June 10. Parker called it “a heroic scientific space mission,” referring to the temperatures and solar radiation to be endured by the spacecraft, and the extreme safeguards taken. The probe will be “ready to do battle with the solar elements as it divulges the secrets of the expanding corona,” he said.
While 4 million miles may not sound that close, it is by solar standards, according to Fox. She urged the crowd to remember while viewing the total solar eclipse this August to remember that the spacecraft eventually will be “right in there” amid the hazy corona surrounding the sun.
“Solar probe is going to be the hottest, fastest mission. I like to call it the coolest, hottest mission under the sun,” Fox said.
The spacecraft will carry a chip containing photos of Parker as well as a copy of his ground-breaking research paper from 1958.
Parker’s prediction of solar wind — the intense flow of charged particles or plasma from the sun — initially was met with skepticism and even ridicule. But it was confirmed a few years later by observations from NASA’s Mariner 2 spacecraft. Until then, scientists believed the space between planets was merely vacuum, rather than part of the encompassing heliosphere it proved to be.