Nasa begins testing of its Probe that will 'Touch the Sun'
Nasa has begun testing its new probe that will 'touch the sun' when it launches into space this summer.
Dubbed the Parker Solar Probe (PSP), the 430,000mph (692,000km/h) craft will collect vital information about the life of stars and their weather events.
This will help scientists improve how we predict dangerous solar flares, which can disrupt satellites and power supplies here on Earth.
Experts from Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland lowered the PSP into a 40 foot (12 meters) tall thermal vacuum chamber.
The chamber simulates the harsh conditions that the spacecraft will experience on its journey through space, including near-vacuum conditions and severe hot and cold temperatures.
The spacecraft will remain in the chamber for about seven weeks, coming out in mid-March for final tests and packing before heading to Florida, where it's scheduled to launch in July 2018 aboard a Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle.
In a written statement, a spokesman for the space agency said: 'Nasa's historic Parker Solar Probe mission will revolutionize our understanding of the Sun, where changing conditions can propagate out into the solar system, affecting Earth and other worlds.
'Parker Solar Probe will travel through the sun’s atmosphere, closer to the surface than any spacecraft before it, facing brutal heat and radiation conditions and ultimately providing humanity with the closest-ever observations of a star.'
Nasa gave a sneak peak of its new probe that will 'tough the sun' in September 2017, including newly installed thermal shielding that can withstand temperatures of 1,371°C (2,500 F).
The device has now been shown in flight configuration for the first time at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, where it is being built.
After launch, it will reach an orbit within four million miles (6.5 million km) of the sun and will measure activity at its outer surface, known as the 'corona'.
The craft will collect vital information about the life of stars and their weather events and will help scientists improve how we predict dangerous solar flares.
The revolutionary heat shield that will protect the spacecraft was installed for the first time on September 21, 2017.
It measures 8 ft (2.43 m) in diameter and is made of a 4.5 inch-thick (11.43 cm) carbon-composite.
Nasa officially announced PSP during a live stream event in May at the University of Chicago's William Eckhardt Research Centre Auditorium.
'We wanted to take the challenge of going to the worst thermal environment in the solar system - and surviving it,' said Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of Nasa's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
'We want to measure the environment there and find what the heating processes are that make the corona hot, and what processes accelerate the solar wind.'
Dr. Zurbuchen then announced, live on air, that the probe - originally dubbed the Solar Probe Plus - was to be renamed the Parker Solar Probe after University of Chicago scientist Eugene Parker, who pioneered solar wind science.
Dr. Parker, who was also speaking at the event, responded: 'I am extremely honored to be associated with this heroic space mission.'
Dr. Nicola Fox, a mission project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, then took to the stage.
She said that until now, Nasa didn't have the advanced materials needed to make such a close trip to the sun's corona.
She added that the corona is actually hotter than the sun's center and that finding out why is a key part of the probe mission.
'I like to think of this as the coolest, hottest mission,' she said.
She explained that Parker Solar Probe will gradually 'surf' closer and closer to the sun, into its corona.
The craft will withstand higher temperatures than any probe that has come before it.
'We will finally touch the sun,' she said.
Answering questions from the audience, Dr. Fox described some of the state-of-the-art equipment that the Parker Solar Probe will carry.
The craft's kit includes a white light imager called Whisper, which will take images of solar waves as the craft propels through them at high speeds.
To measure the 'bulk plasma' of solar winds - which Dr. Fox described as the 'bread and butter' of the flares - a set of magnetic imaging equipment will also be stored on board.
The spacecraft will swoop within 4 million miles (6.5 million km) of the sun's surface - bringing it seven times closer to the sun's surface than any spacecraft before it.
The craft will face extremes of heat and radiation and will reach speeds of up to 450,000 miles per hour (725,000 kph) at its closest flyby of the star.
It is hoped that PSP can help scientists to better understand solar flares - brief eruptions of intense high-energy radiation from the sun's surface that can knock out communications on Earth.
According to Nasa, observations from this new vantage point will help to uncover the physics of how stars work and could improve our ability to predict space weather.
These events have impacts on Earth as well as the satellites and astronauts in space.
Scientists have long wanted to send a probe through the sun's corona to better understand the solar wind and the material it carries into our solar system.
'This is going to be our first mission to fly to the sun,' Eric Christian, a Nasa research scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said of the mission in 2017.
'We can't get to the very surface of the sun,' but the mission will get close enough to answer three important questions, he said.
Until scientists can explain what is going on up close to the sun, they will not be able to accurately predict space weather effects that cause havoc at Earth.
The latest mission could help predict a 'huge solar event', Nasa says.
The sun is the source of the solar wind; a flow of gases that streams past Earth at speeds of more than a million miles per hour (1.6 million km per hour).
Disturbances in the solar wind shake Earth's magnetic field and pump energy into the radiation belts.
One recent study by the National Academy of Sciences estimated that without advance warning a huge solar event could cause two trillion dollars in damage in the US alone.
It could leave the eastern seaboard of the US could be without power for a year.
Millions of tons of highly magnetized material can erupt from the sun at speeds of several million miles an hour.
'This mission will provide insight on a critical link in the sun-Earth connection. Data will be key to understanding and, perhaps, forecasting space weather,' said Nasa.
'Until we can explain what is going on up close to the sun, we will not be able to accurately predict space weather effects that can cause havoc at Earth.'
'At its closest point, the PSP will be traveling at 450,000 miles per hour.'