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NASA to launch world's first mission to Sun

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Illustration of the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft approaching the Sun. Image credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

WASHINGTON (PTI): NASA is set to launch the world's first mission to the Sun next year, that will explore our star's atmosphere and answer questions about solar physics that have puzzled scientists for over six decades.

The Parker Solar Probe has been named in honour of pioneering astrophysicist Eugene Parker, who predicted the existence of the solar wind nearly 60 years ago, the US space agency announced Thursday.

"This is the first time NASA has named a spacecraft for a living individual," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

The spacecraft, about the size of a small car, is loaded with technological breakthroughs that will solve many of the largest mysteries about our star, including finding out why the Sun's corona is so much hotter than its surface.

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 said.

To perform these unprecedented investigations, the spacecraft and instruments will be protected from the Sun's heat by a 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite shield.

The spacecraft is set to be launched during a 20-day window that opens on July 31, 2018 from NASA's Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

"The solar probe is going to a region of space that has never been explored before," said Parker, Professor at the University of Chicago in the US.

"It is very exciting that we will finally get a look. One would like to have some more detailed measurements of what is going on in the solar wind. I am sure that there will be some surprises. There always are," Parker said.

In the 1950s, Parker proposed a number of concepts about how stars – including our Sun - give off energy.

He called this cascade of energy the solar wind, and he described an entire complex system of plasmas, magnetic fields and energetic particles that make up this phenomenon.

Parker also theorised an explanation for the superheated solar atmosphere, the corona, which is – contrary to what was expected by physics laws – hotter than the surface of the Sun itself.

Many NASA missions have continued to focus on this complex space environment defined by our star – a field of research known as heliophysics.

"Parker Solar Probe is going to answer questions about solar physics that we have puzzled over for more than six decades," said Parker Solar Probe Project Scientist Nicola Fox, of the Johns Hopkins University.

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