NASA begins countdown to launch of first spacecraft to ‘touch Sun’

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NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will travel through the sun\’s atmosphere, closer to the surface than any other spacecraft before it.

NASA counted down Friday to the launch of a $1.5 billion spacecraft that aims to plunge into the Sun’s sizzling atmosphere and become humanity’s first mission to explore a star.

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 (3.8 million miles) of the surface.

It’s designed to take solar punishment like never before, thanks to its revolutionary heat shield that’s capable of withstanding 1,370 degrees Celsius (2,500 degrees Fahrenheit).

Liftoff is set for the pre-dawn hours of Saturday for this first-of-its-kind mission to a star.

“The coolest, hottest mission, baby, that’s what it is,” said Nicola Fox, the project scientist at Johns Hopkins University.

Roughly the size of a small car, Parker will get nearly seven times closer to the sun than previous spacecraft. To snuggle up to the sun, it will fly past Venus seven times over seven years. Each flyby will provide an orbit-shaping gravity boost, drawing it ever closer to the sun and straight into the corona — the sun’s outermost atmosphere.

Roughly the size of a small car, Parker will get nearly seven times closer to the sun than previous spacecraft. To snuggle up to the sun, it will fly past Venus seven times over seven years. Each flyby will provide an orbit-shaping gravity boost, drawing it ever closer to the sun and straight into the corona — the sun’s outermost atmosphere.

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. While granting us life, the sun also has the power to disrupt spacecraft in orbit, and communications and electronics on Earth.

“This is where we live,” said NASA solar astrophysicist Alex Young. “We have to understand and characterize this place that we’re travelling through.”

The project was proposed in 1958 to a brand-new NASA, and “60 years later, and it’s becoming a reality,” said project manager Andy Driesman, also of Johns Hopkins , which designed and built the spacecraft. The technology for surviving such a close solar encounter, while still being light enough for flight, wasn’t available until now.

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