In a bid to better understand "how the sun works" and to better predict the "threats of space weather," NASA will attempt to fly within 4 million miles of the sun's atmosphere and penetrate the big star's "hazy corona," which is not as sexy as it sounds, the agency announced Wednesday.
The Solar Probe Plus mission, slated for summer 2018, is the "culmination of 60 years work," according to a dramatically narrated video shown during the agency's announcement at the University of Chicago. (The timing seems weird — seems like it'd be better to visit the sun in winter. But we digress.)
According to NASA:
Placed in orbit within four million miles of the sun’s surface, and facing heat and radiation unlike any spacecraft in history, the spacecraft will explore the sun’s outer atmosphere and make critical observations that will answer decades-old questions about the physics of how stars work. The resulting data will improve forecasts of major space weather events that impact life on Earth, as well as satellites and astronauts in space.
While four million miles may sound like an extreme distance, a NASA official explained that, if the Earth and the sun were one meter apart (we're not sure what that is in American) the spacecraft would be within four centimeters (ditto) of the star.
The spacecraft used during the mission has been named the Parker Solar Probe, in honor of astrophysicist Eugene Parker, NASA also announced.
The agency hopes to answer three important questions during the mission:
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— Why the surface of the sun is not as hot as the sun's atmosphere.
— How solar wind gets its speed.
— Why the sun at some points emits high-energy particles that are dangerous to astronauts and spaceships.
We're pretty sure the answer to all three is "magic," but we'll leave that to the scientists.