NASA plans new mission to ‘touch’ the sun

This image made available by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory on Wednesday, May 31, 2017 depicts NASA's Solar Probe Plus spacecraft approaching the sun. On Wednesday, NASA announced it will launch the probe in summer 2018 to explore the solar atmosphere. It will be subjected to brutal heat and radiation like no other man-made structure before. (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory via AP)

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – NASA set a new mission to touch the sun’s atmosphere, Wednesday. The ambitious flight will expose the spacecraft to extreme heat and radiation surrounding the star and will come within 4 million miles of the sun’s surface.

While that distance may not sound close, it will be the nearest a man-made spacecraft has traveled in proximity to the sun. The space craft will perform several flybys past Venus, using each flyby to move closer to the sun.

During the announcement, the space craft originally called Solar Probe Plus, was renamed as the Parker Solar Probe in honor of astrophysicist Eugene Parker. Parker is accredited with being the first to predict the existence of solar wind.

Parker said he was “honored to be associated” with such a historic mission.

Scientists hope to make observations about the climate and answer vital questions about the behavior of stars.

Nicola Fox, mission project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, explained the reason NASA has not performed a mission like this before was because the technology to withstand the immense heat did not exist.

“Right now, the spacecraft is being built and tested,” Fox said. She explained that they expect to move the spacecraft to Goddard Space Center for more thermal testing by the end of the year.

NASA’s ambition is to learn more about the sun’s corona and help “protect a society that is increasingly dependent on technology from the threats of space weather.” The sun’s corona is often unstable and produces large flares and mass ejections.

“That space between the planets is a lot more exciting and a lot more science is going on than anyone predicted,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Scientist’s at the announcement said they hope the mission will give them a better understanding of why the sun’s atmosphere is hotter than the surface.

The spacecraft will contain devices to measure radiation as well as a white light imager that will take pictures during the mission.

The Parker Solar Probe will also carry a small chip to the sun containing a message from Parker, pictures of the astrophysicist and his paper on solar winds.

The Parker Solar Probe mission expected launch window is between late July and early August 2018.

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