NASA is preparing a spacecraft for a trip to the Sun

Thomas Zurbuchen, from NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said: "By studying our star, we can learn not only more about the Sun".

NASA said in a statement: "Parker Solar Probe, protected by a first-of-its-kind heat shield and other innovative technologies, will provide unprecedented information about our Sun, where changing conditions can spread out into the solar system to affect Earth and other worlds". The spacecraft will travel directly into the Sun's atmosphere, about 4 million miles from its surface.

To perform these unprecedented investigations, the spacecraft and instruments will be protected from the Sun's heat by a 4.5-inch-thick (11.43 cm) carbon-composite shield, which will need to withstand temperatures outside the spacecraft that reach almost 2,500 F (1,377 C).

Flying into the outermost part of the Sun's atmosphere, known as the corona, for the first time, Parker Solar Probe will employ a combination of in situ measurements and imaging to revolutionize our understanding of the corona and expand our knowledge of the origin and evolution of the solar wind.

Liftoff is set for the pre-dawn hours of Saturday.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, manages the mission for NASA.

Fifty years after first conceived, NASA is scheduled to begin its historic mission to "touch the sun". Parker also described the problem of the heating of the corona.

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The two carbon-carbon sheets are just a tenth of an inch thick, meaning they are quite malleable. The front has a custom white ceramic coating to reflect sunlight; it's expected to glow cherry red when bombarded by the extreme solar heat. Despite skepticism, NASA's Mariner 2 spacecraft proved Parker right in 1962.

In all, the spacecraft will make 24 elongated laps around the sun, closer than the orbit of Mercury, the innermost planet.

"As we go from the surface of the Sun, which is 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and move up into the corona, we find ourselves quickly at millions of degrees", he said. Helios 2 got within 27 million miles (43 million kilometers) of the sun in 1976.

Despite humanity's reliance on the star, there is a lot we don't know about it, he said. "So really the only way we can now do it is to do this daring mission to plunge into the corona".

Nasa says the TPS has been tested to withstand up to 1,650C temperatures and "can handle any heat the sun can send its way".

The Parker probe's final three orbits - in 2024 and 2025 - will be the closest. The spacecraft's payload will be near room temperature.

"It's a pretty tough shield", said Fox.

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