What you need to know about NASA's mission to touch the sun

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

There will be 24 orbits between Venus and the sun, with the final three putting Parker closest to the sun - just six million kilometres out - in 2024 and 2025.

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

Through this mission, NASA is hoping to solve decades-old mysteries around what accelerates the solar winds that affect Earth and other planets.

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. In reality, it will aim to eventually reach about 3.8 million miles away, well within the sun's atmosphere.

The probe's mission is to dip into the solar atmosphere and deduce how the rarefied gasses there are heated to millions of degrees centigrade when the solar surface itself is just 6,000°C.

The heat shield is built to withstand radiation equivalent up to about 500 times the Sun's radiation here on Earth.

Scorching, yes? But if all works as planned, the inside of the spacecraft should stay at just 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Scientists have had to take great care to make sure that the Parker Solar Probe doesn't burn up in the process of conducting its important science.

"The sun is full of mysteries", said Nicky Fox, project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab. "We know the questions we want to answer".

The Parker Solar Probe will endure tremendous heat while zooming through the solar corona to study this outermost part of the stellar atmosphere that gives rise to the solar wind. Despite skepticism, NASA's Mariner 2 spacecraft proved Parker right in 1962. The spacecraft will make a total of seven orbits around Venus.

Solar wind can create a whole host of issues for humans - from messing with Global Positioning System communications to exposing astronauts in space to high radiation - and the Parker Solar Probe is launching on a mission to figure out where it comes from.

Tools on board will measure high energy particles associated with flares and coronal mass ejections, as well as the changing magnetic field around the Sun.

When it nears the Sun, the probe will travel rapidly enough to go from NY to Tokyo in one minute - some 430,000 miles per hour, making it the fastest human-made object.

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