Nasa counts down to launch of first spacecraft to 'touch Sun'

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The Parker Solar Probe will endure tremendous heat while zooming through the solar corona to study this outermost part of the stellar atmosphere that gives rise to the solar wind.

The US space agency launches its Parker Solar Probe on Saturday, which will travel closer to the Sun than any mission before, to unlock the secrets of fierce radioactive storms which threaten Earth.

Since the mission was named in his honor previous year, NASA has offered Parker special behind-the-scenes access to the spacecraft carrying his name. He plans be at Cape Canaveral for the launch. Apart from Parker's photo and his research paper are more than 1 million names of space fans who submitted their named to Nasa this past spring. "Our first fly-by to Venus is in the fall, in September".

In all, the spacecraft will make 24 elongated laps around the Sun, closer than the orbit of Mercury, the innermost planet.

Nasa says the TPS has been tested to withstand up to 1,650C temperatures and "can handle any heat the sun can send its way".

Helios 2 got within 43 million km of the sun in 1976. During its elliptical orbit, the Parker Solar Probe will make it up to 430,000mph, which would be a new speed record. The spacecraft eventually will run out of fuel and, no longer able to keep its heat shield pointed toward the sun, will burn and break apart - except perhaps for the rugged heat shield.

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"It was just a matter of sitting out the deniers for four years until the Venus Mariner 2 spacecraft showed that, by golly, there was a solar wind", Parker said earlier this week.

It weighs a mere 635 kg.

It will set the record for the fastest spacecraft in history.

The probe, named after American solar astrophysicist Eugene Newman Parker, is set to use seven Venus fly-bys over almost seven years to steadily reduce its orbit around the Sun, using instruments created to image the solar wind and study electric and magnetic fields, coronal plasma and energetic particles. The 8-foot (2.4-meter) shield will face the sun during the close solar encounters, shading the science instruments in the back and keeping them humming at a cool 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius).

"And last but not least, we have a white light imager that is taking images of the atmosphere right in front of the Sun".

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