Solar Probe Plus: NASA to launch mission into Sun's atmosphere next year

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NASA set July 31, 2018, for the tentative launch of the probe, which is the culmination of 60 years of work, the agency said.

It will see a probe come within four million miles of the searing hot surface of the sun, facing severe heat and radiation more intense than any spacecraft has ever endured. That will be considerably closer than any other spacecraft, and the mission will subject the probe to brutal heat and radiation like no other man-made structure before. The craft will collect vital information about the life of stars and their weather events and will help scientists improve predicting unsafe solar flares.

NASA announced on Wednesday that the agency's "unprecedented" mission to "touch the sun" will be named after the renowned astrophysicist Eugene Parker, whose work has revolutionized scientists' understanding of the sun.

Temperatures in the corona are up to 500,000 degrees celsius and, for an unknown reason, far exceeds the heat of the sun's core.

"We've been inside the orbit of Mercury and done wonderful things, but until you go and touch the sun, you can't answer these questions", Fox said.

Instruments for a suite scientific investigations on board the spacecraft will probe myriad solar phenomena from the electric and magnetic properties of the sun's plasma to counting and catching the components of solar wind - a stream of charged particles, or plasma, that flows from the sun out into space.

"Typically, NASA names missions after scientists that have also contributed to various sciences like astrophysics and so forth, typically after they have passed, so it's posthumously done".

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In October 1958, the first long-range plans for a solar probe was first laid down at the University of Chicago, informed by Parker's findings.

Inside the sun's outer atmosphere - the corona - a variety of instruments will take direct measurements of the energetic particles (electrons, protons, and ions) zipping around. During the course of 24 orbits, the spacecraft will fly by Venus seven times to gravitationally reduce its distance from the sun.

"This marks the first time a NASA spacecraft has been named for a living individual, and I am very excited to be personally involved", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C. Zurbuchen also presented Parker with NASA's distinguished public service medal, one of its highest honors.

The sun is 93 million miles from Earth.

NASA approved the construction of Solar Probe Plus in April 2015.

The Corona, which NASA describes as "unstable", is the outer atmosphere that spreads millions of miles away from the Sun and is sometimes visible during a total eclipse. It's the first time NASA has named a spacecraft after a researcher during their lifetime.