NASA hopes to send a spacecraft within 4 million miles of the sun to gather data on potentially disastrous space weather events of the future. The organization is particularly concerned about a "huge solar event" such as a coronal mass ejection — which could possibly cause a yearlong power blackout in the United States — but will also gather information necessary to understand how the sun works.
"In order to unlock the mysteries of the corona, but also to protect a society that is increasingly dependent on technology from the threats of space weather, we will send [the Parker Solar Probe] to touch the sun," NASA wrote on its website.
Ahead of the spacecraft's departure from Earth, slated for the summer of 2018, a panel of NASA officials and scientists unveiled further details. Here's what we learned.
It has been renamed the "Parker Solar Probe."
Just days before his 90th birthday, the "Solar Probe Plus" was renamed the "Parker Solar Probe" in honor of Eugene N. Parker, a legendary scientist who first wrote about solar winds in a controversial 1958 paper. At the time, Parker was ridiculed by several members of the scientific community — but today, he is the only person to have a NASA spacecraft named after him while still alive.
"It’s a testament to the importance of his body of work," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said during the livestream.
After nearly 60 years, breakthroughs in material sciences are allowing this mission to happen.
Though scientists have wanted to study the sun up close since Parker's discovery in the late 1950s, NASA has long searched for materials that could withstand the incredible heat.
"The very first thing we had to do is make a heat shield," Nicola Fox, a scientist on the Parker Solar Probe Project, said during the livestream. "We are building, testing, integrating the instruments — biting our fingernails."
According to a video played during the NASA livestream, the Parker Solar Probe will face temperatures of about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit and an atmosphere that is about 300 times hotter than Earth's.
Fox announced that the project will relocate at the end of 2017 to Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where final tests "including the nerve-wracking thermal environment" will be conducted. After that, the project will be moved to Florida, where it will be launched using the Delta IV Heavy — essentially a type of rocket.
The Parker Solar Probe won't actually touch the sun, but it will get incredibly close.
It may not sound like much at first, but the spacecraft will be within 4 million miles of the sun, seven times closer than any previous mission, Fox said. It will continue to encircle the sun and gather data until at least 2024.
"If the Earth were separated by 1 meter, we would be about 4 centimeters from the sun," Fox said. "It's actually very, very close."
After launching, the Parker Solar Probe will travel at about 430,000 miles per hour, or 118 miles per second. "That's like traveling from New York to Tokyo in less than a minute," according to a video played by NASA during the livestream.
If you want to envision where the Parker Solar Probe will be, check out the upcoming solar eclipse.
For the first time in 100 years, there will be a total solar eclipse visible from almost all of the continental United States on Monday, Aug. 21. Anyone in the U.S. can look up into the sky and see the "hazy" solar corona, which NASA scientists hope to study with the new probe.
"When you look up and see the eclipse, [the] solar probe is going to be right there," Fox said.