Space has fascinated us since the first day we looked up at the sky and saw the bright light beating down on us. It has been a god, a hoax to some weird folks, but nowadays it's universally known as the sun. We've studied the sun the way people can study something a few million miles away, with theories and new discoveries popping up every few years about something that we have no ability to manipulate and would be extinct within minutes if it ceased to exist. Thinking about it that way really does trivialize the first world struggles a lot of us suffer at the hands of on a daily basis.
In a mission that's been in the works for near 60 years, NASA plans on launching a spacecraft in 2018 that will "touch the sun." The spacecraft is as small as a refrigerator, but built to withstand temperatures of more than 1000 degrees Celsius. Meaning that the probe will be able to get pretty close before being burnt to a crisp.
"Even though the sun is so close to us, there's actually a lot about it we don't understand," says heat shield lead engineer Betsy Congdon of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
And there's a few things that scientists want answers to. First, how can the sun fling winds out at supersonic speeds? If we learn the answer, Congdon says it'll help us protect astronauts and satellites from these events.
"Unless we can explain what is going on up close to the sun, we will not be able to accurately predict space weather effects that can cause havoc at Earth," NASA explains.
Secondly, why is the sun's atmosphere 300 times hotter than its surface? That defies the laws of nature as we know them, and if we figure it out, mission project scientist Nicola Fox thinks it could reshape science as we know it.
The plan is to send the probe towards the sun and complete 24 orbits over the course of six years. The probe will get closer with each orbit, until it gets as close as it can at about 3.9 million miles away from the star's surface. That's seven times closer than any previous mission.
The route means that they'll be massive fluctuations in temperature, and to stop the probe from getting fried, an 8-foot wide umbrella made of layers of carbon will protect instruments.
The probe will be named after Eugene Parker, a physicist who predicted the existence of solar winds almost 60 years ago. He's about to turn 90, making it the first craft to be named after a living researcher.
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