NASA’s Spacecraft Will Be Launched Next Week to ‘Touch the Sun’

Eugene Parker at the University of Chicago               CBS News

This August NASA will launch a new interplanetary spacecraft to "touch the Sun", and the vehicle is getting all vamped up with a super durable heat shield.

EXPERTS are set to launch a solar probe, which will come closer to the sun than any man-made object has ever done before. By the last orbits of its nominal mission, in 2024 and 2025, the spacecraft will be less than 10 solar radii from the center of the sun, or 9 solar radii above the surface.

The sandwich-like layers of foam and carbon fiber, further insulated and strengthened with special coats of paint, create an incredible lightweight defense against the extreme temperatures the probe will encounter as it flies within 4 million miles of the sun's surface.

To help scientists answer these questions, engineers have outfitted the solar probe with a variety of instruments.

Foam and fiber form the probes heat shield, which is nearly 5 inches thick sitting on the front of the spacecraft. "We're going to be very, very close".

This will enable the probe to work on three main questions: why its atmosphere becomes hotter farther away from the surface of the Sun, how the solar wind of charged particles streaming out into space is born, and what causes the huge outbursts scientists call coronal mass ejections.

Additionally, it will carry a memory card containing over 1.1 million names, including William Shatner's, of people who asked for them to be sent into the sun.

"We hide in the shade underneath the shield", McComas said.

McComas has been involved in designing and planning the Parker Space Probe for more than a decade, but the mission was first identified as a priority in 1958, at the start of the space age. Christian said. "Some high-energy solar particles accelerate to almost half the speed of light, and we don't know why". The FIELDS instrument suite, a series of antennas and magnetometers, will measure shape and scale of the corona's electric and magnetic fields.

It will hitch a ride through the atmosphere before being blasted into deep space by the Delta IV Heavy rocket.

The mission will take off from Space Launch Complex 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. "It's probably the best launch you could see".

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