Historic NASA mission will be first to 'touch the sun'

The spacecraft will use seven Venus flybys over nearly seven years to gradually shrink its orbit around the sun. Pic John Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab

Over the next seven years, the Parker Solar Probe will fly by Venus seven times, using the planet's gravity to bring itself closer to the Sun each time.

Scientists hope to unlock mysteries such as why the sun's corona, the outermost layer of its atmosphere, is hotter than its surface.

Successive flybys will be closer, culminating, in 2024, with a series of encounters just 3.8m miles above the sun's surface. The $1.5-billion, car-sized spacecraft is created to provide a close look at the sun's atmosphere - what astronomers call the corona - to answer enduring questions about this ultra-hot region of our nearest star."We'll be going where no spacecraft has dared go before - within the corona of a star", project scientist Nicola Fox of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, said in a written statement.

The mission Sun's outer atmosphere, or corona, the closest any man-made instrument has ever got to a star.

The probe is relying on a 4.5 inch carbon heat shield which has taken 10 years to develop and which is so strong it will survive for billions of years even when the rest of the spacecraft has disintegrated. The probe will contain four instrument packages created to, among other things, trace the movement of energy and heat within the corona and help scientists figure out what accelerates solar energetic particles and solar wind.

Image: The spacecraft can withstand enormous heat.

Understanding more about solar activity could help scientists forecast the large eruptions from the sun that pose a threat to satellite and communications systems.

NASA says it's ready for a historic trip to the sun this weekend.

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