A NASA probe, set to launch in August, will fly closer to the surface of the Sun than any prior spacecraft, according to Reuters. Aiming to reach as close as 3.83 million miles (6.1 million kilometers) from the Sun’s surface, the probe will face temperatures that could approach 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,370 degrees Celsius).
It will come seven times as close to the surface as the Helios 2 probe, which set the previous record by reaching 27 million miles from thesurface, in 1976. It will fly into the corona, which generates solar winds that can affect the Earth’s magnetic field and communications technology. NASA is hoping that the probe will obtain information that will help researchers make predictions about these solar wind patterns. It will also investigate why this solar wind accelerates as it gains distance from the Sun.
According to NASA solar scientist Alex Young, who is the associate director for the Heliophysics Science Division at Goddard Space Flight Center:
“It’s of fundamental importance for us to be able to predict this space weather, much like we predict weather here on Earth. In the most extreme cases of these space weather events, it can actually affect our power grids here on Earth.”
However, accomplishing an unprecedented goal will present unprecedented challenges.
The probe will include a heat shield designed to keep instruments at just 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29 degrees Celsius). The lightweight carbon-composite shield is 4.5 inches thick, and consists of two layers of superheated carbon-composite, surrounding a foam core that is 97 percent air. The system will keep the solar panels at a temperature that allows them to function, even facing the brutal temperatures close to the Sun.
The probe is roughly the size of a car. It will use the readily available solar energy to power the journey.
The mission will last seven years, and will utilize seven Venus flybys in order to gradually reduce its orbit around the Sun.
The probe is called the Parker Solar Probe, after the astrophysicist Eugene Newman Parker.
In addition to providing information about our own Sun, the mission will also help researchers understand “all the other stars throughout the galaxy, the universe and even life’s beginnings,” according to associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters, Thomas Zurbuchen.
“We’ve been studying the Sun for decades, and now we’re finally going to go where the action is,” said Young.