NASA Is About to Launch a Spacecraft Right at the Sun. Seriously.
Like Icarus before them, NASA is about to attempt to fly awfully close to that big glowing ball in the sky. With the potential to blast off as soon as Saturday, NASA is launching a probe straight at the sun. Really.
The Parker Solar Probe will take off from Florida, then spend six weeks in flight before hitting Venus's gravitational pull. The planet's gravity will send the probe toward our star, where it will approach the sun's atmosphere or corona on its first of two dozen passes by the sun lasting until 2024.
The probe will venture closer to the sun than any spacecraft has before. The closest pass will bring it 0.04 astronomical units from the sun or seven times closer than any other human-made object, according to NASA.
"When NASA first was formed, they came up with a list of missions that they wanted to see happen for the scientific community," Betsy Congdon, lead engineer on the Parker Solar Probe heat shield, told NPR. "This is the only one that hasn't been done."
That unattained goal is sending a probe to the sun, and it will happen sometime between August 11 and August 23. It's currently expected to launch on August 11 between 3:48am and 4:48am ET, but conditions could delay that launch.
You know the sun. It's hanging there over you most days unless you live in England or Seattle. But there's actually a lot we don't understand about our star. For instance, we know that solar winds travel millions of miles per hour, can cause havoc with satellites, and cause the northern lights. But, among many other things, it's not clear how the solar winds escape with such incredible speeds or how the corona's plasma is heated to higher temperatures than the surface of the sun.
The probe is equipped with a shield to help endure that heat. The spacecraft itself is tucked safely into the shield's shadow, according to NASA. It also has sensors that will allow it to self-correct its course if the spacecraft isn't properly situated out of the sun's intense glare.
The first flyby will take place this fall, so you have plenty of time to re-watch Sunshine and think of all the weird things that could happen out there.