NASA mission to 'touch the sun' launches Saturday

NASA mission to 'touch the sun' launches Saturday

NASA mission to 'touch the sun' launches Saturday

While it will initially be launched in a solar orbit, NASA plans to use Venus' gravity to alter its course to bring it in ever closer circles to the sun.

At 3:33 a.m. EDT on August 11, while most of the asleep, NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida will be abuzz with excitement.

"There are missions that are studying the solar wind, but we're going to get to the birthplace", Fox said.

The spacecraft launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and will be hitching a ride on board United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy rocket, which has an added third stage and is all geared up for a speedy liftoff. About the size of a small auto, it weighs a mere 1,400 pounds.

"This could help us do a much better job of predicting when a disturbance in the solar wind could hit Earth, triggering space weather that could disrupt Global Positioning System, radio, radar and the electric grid", said Justin Kaspar, a professor at the University of MI and a principle investigator for the Parker Solar Probe.

"And it needs to be, because it takes an vast amount of energy to get to our final orbit around the Sun", Driesman added.

Zooming through space in a highly elliptical orbit, Parker Solar Probe will reach speeds up to 430,000 miles per hour - fast enough to get from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., in a second - setting the record for the fastest spacecraft in history. "It's of fundamental importance for us to be able to predict space weather much the way we predict weather on Earth", explained Alex Young, a solar scientist at Nasa.

The fleet of heliophysics spacecraft and satellites, which observe and study the Sun and solar wind. To snuggle up to the sun, it will fly past Venus seven times over seven years. "And that allows us to shrink our orbit and go closer to the sun than anything has been before".

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In an orbit this close to the Sun, the real challenge is to keep the spacecraft from burning up. The closest any other spacecraft has come was the Helios B probe, which came within 27 million miles on April 17, 1976.

Protected behind a new carbon-composite heat shield, the probe's instruments will remain at roughly room temperature as they gather information in a region of the corona that reaches temperatures of around 1,400°C.

The heat shield is a sandwich of carbon-carbon composite surrounding almost four and half inches of carbon foam, which is about 97 percent air. Despite skepticism, NASA's Mariner 2 spacecraft proved Parker right in 1962. Somewhere in the Sun's corona - the source of glow that you can see during a total solar eclipse - these particles can reach supersonic speeds and are collectively called the solar wind. There is also a white light imager, taking pictures of what the spacecraft is about to "plow through", said Fox.

"The state of solar wind is greatly affected during its journey toward Earth and beyond by a number of other physical processes, which mask completely what caused the heating and acceleration of the plasma in the corona in the first place", Raouafi says.

NASA's Messenger, which orbited Mercury from 2011 to 2015, provided insight into the solar wind but was too away.

"I'm greatly honored to be associated with such a heroic scientific space mission", Parker said.

If the probe doesn't launch on Sunday, the window for a successful launch doesn't close until August 23.

Three months later, Parker Solar Probe will reach its first close approach of the Sun in November 2018, and will send the data back in December.

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