NASA is launching a probe to ‘touch the sun’ for the first time tomorrow

Tomorrow (Saturday 11 August), NASA is set to launch a spacecraft that will venture closer to the sun than ever before.

The Parker Solar Probe is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 03:33 local time, which is 08:33 in the UK.

The car-sized spacecraft will blast off on top of NASA’s most powerful launcher, the Delta IV Heavy rocket, beginning a seven-year mission.

Set to reach its target in November 2018, the probe will fly into the Sun’s corona, within 3.8 million miles (6.1 million km) of the solar surface.

The previous closest pass to the Sun was by the Helios 2 probe in 1976 when it flew within 27 million miles (43 million km).

The probe will face extreme temperatures reaching nearly 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,370 degrees Celsius) at its closest pass.

The on-board heat shield, called the Thermal Protection System, is designed to keep the probe cool. In fact, it enables the probe to operate at around room temperature.

The Thermal Protection System is a sandwich of carbon-carbon composite surrounding nearly 4.5 inches (11.4cm) of carbon foam, which is about 97% air.

The main aim of the mission is to gather information that will help scientists to forecast changes in Earth’s space environment.

This is important because extreme solar weather can have a negative impact on vital systems on Earth, including power grids.

"The Sun’s energy is always flowing past our world," said Nicky Fox, Parker Solar Probe’s project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab.

"And even though the solar wind is invisible, we can see it encircling the poles as the aurora, which are beautiful – but reveal the enormous amount of energy and particles that cascade into our atmosphere.

"We don’t have a strong understanding of the mechanisms that drive that wind toward us, and that’s what we’re heading out to discover."

The Parker Solar Probe will complete 25 orbits around the sun interspersed with flybys near the Earth’s orbit, when the data it has collected can be beamed back to scientists. The last three orbits will see the probe at its closest to the sun.

The spacecraft is named after American solar astrophysicist Eugene Newman Parker who first theorised the existence of solar wind in 1958.

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