NASA counts down to launch of first spacecraft to "touch the sun"

Artist’s concept of the Solar Probe Plus spacecraft approaching the sun. Pic Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

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. It is expected to approach the sun in 2024. The $1.5-billion, car-sized spacecraft is created to provide a close look at the sun's atmosphere - what astronomers call the corona - to answer enduring questions about this ultra-hot region of our nearest star."We'll be going where no spacecraft has dared go before - within the corona of a star", project scientist Nicola Fox of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, said in a written statement. This will place the probe just 3.8 million miles from the Sun's surface - seven times closer to the star than any craft that came before it, according to NASA.

The mission Sun's outer atmosphere, or corona, the closest any man-made instrument has ever got to a star.

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The spacecraft will make use of an 8ft-long heat shield known as the Thermal Protection System (TPS), which has been made using a carbon composite coated with ceramic to cope with the extreme conditions and temperature fluctuations.

This is a phenomenon that has baffled NASA scientists because the sun's atmosphere "gets much, much hotter the farther it stretches from the sun's blazing surface".

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If scientists understand more about solar activity, they could use it to predict large solar eruptions that pose a threat to satellites orbiting the Earth.

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".

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