NASA's mission to 'touch the sun' starts tomorrow

The spacecraft will use seven Venus flybys over nearly seven years to gradually shrink its orbit around the sun. Pic John Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab

NASA's Parker Solar Probe, which is scheduled to launch early Saturday, is expected to rack up a number of historic firsts for the space agency.

NASA's Parker Solar Probe will be the first spacecraft to "touch" the sun, hurtling through the sizzling solar atmosphere and coming within just 6 million kilometres of the surface.

It will take six years for the probe to make to reach its closest point to the sun, in 2024, by using Venus' gravity to bring itself nearer and nearer to the star.

"The solar wind also fills up much of the solar system, dominating the space environment far past Earth", NASA said.

The entire project cost R20.5-billion and will continue until 2025. "With each orbit, we'll be seeing new regions of the sun's atmosphere and learning things about stellar mechanics that we've wanted to explore for decades."Over the course of its seven-year mission, the probe will orbit the sun 24 times, each time sweeping through the corona, where the temperature is a blistering 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (almost 1,400 degrees Celsius)".

On each close approach to the sun, the probe will sample the solar wind, study the sun's corona, and provide close-up observations from around the star.

Scientists expect the $1.5 billion mission to shed light not only on our own dynamic sun, but the billions of other yellow dwarf stars - and other types of stars - out there in the Milky Way and beyond. That speed is equivalent to going from Washington, DC to Philadelphia in a split second. It's the first time NASA has named a spacecraft after someone who's still alive.

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

"You know something exciting is just around the bend, but where you're sitting you can't see what that is", Fox said.

When the probe begins its final orbits it will be moving at approximately 430,000 miles per hour, according to NASA.

"The solar corona is one of the last places in the solar system where no spacecraft has visited before", Parker Solar Probe scientist Adam Szabo said in a statement. "We're a technological society, so we have to understand this to better understand its impact and ultimately to be able to predict it just like we do weather on Earth".

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