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Probe being tested in DC area likely to get 7 times closer to sun than any spacecraft ever

After testing is finished at Goddard the probe will be flown to Florida, where it has a launch window from July 31 to Aug. 19 at the Kennedy Space Center. (Courtesy of NASA Animation)

A probe being tested in the DC area is expected to get seven times closer to the sun than any spacecraft in history.

The Parker Solar Probe was built at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, and is now undergoing testing around the clock at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

Scientists say there are still a lot of mysteries surrounding the sun, and they hope the probe will provide answers. Among the mysteries – how solar wind comes about, why the sun’s corona or upper atmosphere is millions of degrees while its surface is only 6000 degrees, and how solar particles get to the speed of light.

“To get the real deep understanding we need to go where the action is,” said Dr. Eric Christian with Goddard. “And that’s what Parker Solar Probe is going to do for the first time.

“Getting a mission to the sun is one of the first missions that was proposed for NASA 50 years ago, and it’s only now that the technology has actually caught up so that we can do it."

NASA says if the distance from the earth to the sun were a 100-yard football field, the closest any spacecraft has ever gotten is between 30 and 35 yards away from the sun. But the Parker Solar Probe is expected to eventually make it all the way to the 4-yard line.

After testing is finished at Goddard the probe will be flown to Florida, where it has a launch window from July 31 to Aug. 19 at the Kennedy Space Center.

The probe will use the gravity of the planet Venus to help it orbit the sun two dozen times over about seven years.

Although it is expected to be closer to the sun than any other spacecraft in history within months of its launch, it won’t reach its very closest approach to the sun’s surface until its final three orbits.

Scientists are testing the probe in shifts round the clock inside a giant chamber that simulates space at Goddard.

The probe has a heat shield that will have to withstand temperatures of up to around 2500 degrees while keeping the instruments behind it at about room temperature.

“A lot of people have been working really hard for a really long time on this, so the reward is when it launches and it all works,” said Justin Hahn, Spacecraft Lead with the probe’s Integration and Test Team.

Hahn says based on what he’s seeing from the testing, he’s confident the probe will do its job under the incredibly hard conditions near the sun.

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