NASA sending spacecraft straight into sun's glittering crown

But wait-now that you're farther from the fire, it's even hotter! Huh?

Similar to how "weather" refers to the motion of winds and storms, and how the properties of those phenomena (precipitation, lightning, tornadoes, etc) can affect us, "space weather" refers the motion and behaviour of the solar wind, as well solar flares and "solar storms" - the huge clouds of particles, also known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which can erupt into space - and the associated impacts that these phenomena have on Earth and our technologies.

The U.S. got a glimpse of the sun's glowing, spiky crown, or corona, during last August's coast-to-coast total solar eclipse. As handsome as the corona is, it represents a massive headache for astrophysicists and solar physicists.

"You know something exciting is just around the bend, but where you're sitting you can't see what that is", Fox said.

How can the Sun's atmosphere, called the corona, reach temperatures exceeding a million degrees Celsius if the star's surface is "only" 6,000 C (10,800 degrees Fahrenheit)?

It turns out that it is much harder to launch a probe to the Sun than it is to a distant planet like Pluto.

There are other mysteries surrounding the corona as well.

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The fleet of heliophysics spacecraft and satellites, which observe and study the Sun and solar wind. The technology for surviving such a close solar encounter, while still being light enough for flight, wasn't available until now.

What is known is the general effect of solar wind on man-made and natural systems back here on Earth. While these shows are attractive, heavy bursts of particles called solar storms have the potential to wreak havoc on the energy grid, and back in space the high-energy particles represent a serious threat to astronauts and spacecraft.

As we continue to venture out into the unknown in search of deepening our understanding of the universe, humankind is once again force to humble itself and realize we truly are only at the beginning of this journey. The probe has some serious work to accomplish and many questions to answer in the coming years.

NASA's Parker Solar Probe - the space agency's new spacecraft created to "touch the sun" - is packed up, buckled in and ready to launch during a window opening Saturday (Aug. 11) at 3:33 a.m. EDT (0733 GMT) from NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, according to a NASA news conference today (Aug. 9). Each flyby will provide an orbit-shaping gravity boost, drawing it ever closer to the sun and straight into the corona - the sun's outermost atmosphere. By operating so close to the Sun, it will be passing through an environment with enormous radio interference.

Scientists want to learn about the solar wind which causes geomagnetic storms. "It allows the spacecraft to operate at about room temperature". When they reach the Earth, most particles are deflected by the earth's magnetic field. And as it draws near, the spacecraft will be accelerated by our star's intense gravity to a stupendous speed - estimated to be 430,000 miles per hour. 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. If the teams investigate the issues that delayed Saturday's launch and it can't be resolved in time for a 24-hour turnaround, the next attempt won't happen until Monday.

NASA's Parker Solar Probe is scheduled for launch early Saturday morning. From Earth, it will head towards Venus, where it will execute the first of seven flybys. "So really the only way we can now do it is to do this daring mission to plunge into the corona".

Although much of the Sun's structure is still something of a mystery to us, the PSP is full of possibility.

(Copyright © 2015. All Rights Reserved.)

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