NASA Sending Probe to 'Touch' the Sun—Here's Why

The sun’s searing heat has made a mission into the star’s atmosphere impossible until now.

This story appears in the August 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

NASA has embarked on many successful missions—from rocketing astronauts to the moon to launching the first spacecraft to reach interstellar space. But it hasn’t yet sent a mission to the sun. The deterrent? Our nearest star’s searing heat.

The surface of the sun is 10,000°F, but its outer atmosphere—the corona—soars to some 3.5 million degrees Fahrenheit.

“This temperature inversion is a big mystery that no one has been able to explain,” says Nicola Fox, project scientist for the Parker Solar Probe, the NASA mission that aims to finally get close to the sun.

Today, NASA announced that for the first time in its history, a spacecraft is being formally named after a living person—previously known as Solar Probe Plus, the Parker Solar Probe was renamed for Eugene Parker, the astrophysicist who discovered solar wind in 1958.

The mission is made possible by a shield constructed from a carbon-carbon composite, which will keep the probe’s instruments safe in the 70-degree range. Launching as early as July 31, 2018, the probe will make 24 orbits of the sun. It will get within four million miles of the star with the gravitational assist of seven Venus flybys.

That’s close enough to find answers to the sun’s other big mystery: what creates the solar wind, the charged particles that accelerate from the sun and wreak havoc on Earth’s electrical systems. (Read "How Sun-Watchers Stopped World War III in 1967.")

“We see the sun every day, but we don’t know much about it,” says Fox. “The sun is the last major place for us to go.”

<p style="font-family: tahoma, arial, helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 12px;">Images of the “Pillars of Creation” are among the most recognizable of the thousands the Hubble Space Telescope has created. The butte-like features were captured in the Eagle Nebula, also known as M16.</p>

Pillars of Creation

Images of the “Pillars of Creation” are among the most recognizable of the thousands the Hubble Space Telescope has created. The butte-like features were captured in the Eagle Nebula, also known as M16.

Photograph by NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA). Colorized Composite/Mosaic

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