NASA aims to uncover the secrets of the sun and answer long-mystifying questions about our nearest star next summer when it sends a spacecraft through blistering heat — at equally blistering speeds — to reach the sun for the first time.
The spacecraft will travel 430,000 miles per hour and battle temperatures up to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit within the sun’s corona, the research team behind the historic journey said at a news conference Wednesday. The spacecraft will come seven times closer to the sun than any other mission before it.
“We will finally touch the sun,” said Nicola Fox, a mission project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.
Fox, who called the project the “coolest, hottest, fastest mission under the sun,” said it would finally help NASA answer seemingly “simple” questions that have long stumped scientists. “Why is the corona hotter than the surface of the sun? That defies the laws of nature,” she said. “We have not been able to answer these questions without actually taking a probe into the sun.”
Fox said the mission would also improve forecasts of major space weather events and provide critical information on how the sun works and how Earth’s environment responds to the sun.
The spacecraft, which will feature a newly developed heat shield, is currently being built and undergoing rigorous testing to withstand the extreme speeds and changing temperatures, Fox said. Final testing on it will be conducted at the end of the year.
The mission was 60 years in the making after solar astrophysicist Eugene Parker first began researching what he called the “primary puzzle in the universe.” “It really is something amazing,” he said Wednesday, calling the space mission “heroic.”
The spacecraft set to embark for the sun was renamed in his honor during NASA’s announcement at the University of Chicago, ahead of the researcher’s 90th birthday. The Parker Solar Probe will come within 4 million miles of the sun’s surface.
“Hooray for Solar Probe,” Parker said.