Nasa's first mission to Sun to launch in 2018
In what has been billed as a “mission of extremes,” Nasa has announced plans to send a spacecraft into the Sun’s outer atmosphere.
The Parker Solar Probe mission, due to launch next summer, will fly within four million miles of the star’s searing surface, enduring unprecedented heat and radiation.
The US space agency believes the mission will solve longstanding scientific condundrums about the physics of how stars work, including why the Sun’s corona - its outermost layer - is so much hotter than its surface.
It is hoped the probe’s findings will revolutionise forecasts of extreme weather conditions in space which impact on life here on Earth.
According to Dr Nicola Fox, the British scientist heading up the pioneering project, it is the “coolest, hottest mission” in Nasa’s storied history.
The statistics offered up by the agency reveal that to be an understatement; as it travels at speeds of 430,000 miles per hour, the probe will encounter temperatures of up to 1,371C.
However, Nasa expressed confidence that it would be able to withstand such brutal conditions thanks to a seven foot-wide heat shield made from advanced carbon-composite material.
Once fitted, instruments will be able to operate at room temperature.
“The Parker Solar Probe is going to answer questions about solar physics that we’ve puzzled over for more than six decades,” said Dr Fox, from Johns Hopkins University’s applied physics laboratory. “It’s a spacecraft loaded with technological breakthroughs that will solve many of the largest mysteries about our star.”
Chief among those quandaries is the origins of solar wind, a flow of ionised gases from the Sun which streams past the Earth at speeds of a million miles per hour, shaking the planet’s magnetic field.
The mission, previously known as Solar Probe Plus, has been renamed in honour of Eugene Parker, a pioneering physicist who, as a young professor in 1958, laid down the first theory of what would later become known as solar wind.
The £1.1 billion venture will take seven years, during which time the probe will perform 24 close flybys of the Sun.
Despite the groundbreaking advances revealed yesterday, some budding amateur scientists on social media offered advice to Dr Fox and her colleagues.
“They should do it at night,” counselled Austen Humphries. “It’ll be much cooler.”