NASA set to launch Sun probe on Saturday

Artist’s concept of the Solar Probe Plus spacecraft approaching the sun. Pic Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

To watch the launch, tune into NASA TV.

Getting from the Earth to the sun should seem reasonably straightforward since the star is always in the same place in our solar system relative to Earth's orbit. At that moment, NASA's Parker Solar Probe, the agency's historic mission to touch the Sun, will have its first opportunity to lift off. On Board facilities are a high-quality camera, so soon, scientists will enjoy interesting images. It's thought that this roiling magnetic environment accelerates solar winds to supersonic speeds, preparing them to hurtle through the Solar system, but this theory has never been verified. Experts hope that the information obtained by the probe will help to examine in more detail the phenomenon.

The mission is also the first one to ever be named after a living scientist, astrophysicist Eugene Parker from the University of Chicago, Illinois. Understanding how the corona works will help scientists anticipate risky space weather storms, which can disrupt the power grid on Earth. "If you have a better understanding of the behavior of these solar energetic particles, then you can make better predictions about when to send astronauts to Mars or protect a satellite before it gets ripped apart by a radiation burst". Combined, the three stages will ensure the spacecraft can gather the huge speed necessary to successfully orbit the sun.

"There are missions that are studying the solar wind, but we're going to get to the birthplace", Fox said. "It allows the spacecraft to operate at about room temperature".

'This is an absolutely seminal moment for the physics of the Sun, ' says Valentin Martinez Pillet, director of the US National Solar Observatory, which is responsible for building the DKIST telescope.

The probe will have to do seven orbits over seven years around the sun, with gravity assistance from Venus, to reduce that sideways speed.

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Guarding the spacecraft and its four instruments against temperatures, reaching 2,500 degrees, is a 4.5-inch thick carbon-composite shield. A probe created to get closer to the Sun's surface than any man-made object has before.

Speeding by at a pace of 430,000 miles per hour will make it "the fastest human-made object", said project scientist Nicky Fox of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab.

The Parker probe, which will venture the nearest ever to the Sun to study its atmosphere, will be launched on August 11th.

The Delta IV Heavy is the nation´s proven heavy lifter, delivering high-priority missions for the US Air Force, National Reconnaissance Office and NASA. That's a scant 4 percent of the 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) between Earth and the sun. The Solar Probe Cup, dubbed "the bravest little instrument", is a sensor that will extend beyond the heat shield to "scoop up samples" of the sun's atmosphere, according to Justin Kasper, mission principal investigator and professor of climate, space sciences and engineering at the University of MI. Such particles can interfere with satellite electronics, especially for satellites outside of Earth's magnetic field. While granting us life, the sun also has the power to disrupt spacecraft in orbit, and communications and electronics on Earth.

An artist's rendition of the PSP venturing close to the Sun's surface.

The Parker probe will get so close that the pressure from mere sunlight will be enough to flip the spacecraft around in less than a minute, Kasper said.

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