NASA Parker Solar Probe to launch from Cape Canaveral

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

Image Artist's concept of the Parker Solar Probe approaching the sun. Pic NASA

"The Parker Solar Probe will help us do a much better job of predicting when a disturbance in the solar wind could hit Earth", said Justin Kasper, one of the project scientists and a professor at the University of MI. "Well, Parker Solar Probe's going to be in there", said project scientist Nicola Fox of Johns Hopkins University.

The project, with a $1.5bn (€1.3bn) price tag, is the first major space mission under Nasa's "Living With a Star" programme.

The Sun may be granting us life but it also has the power to play havoc with spacecraft in orbit, and communications and electronics on Earth. While the shield will be facing temperatures of up to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, the spacecraft will be at a toasty but tolerable 85 degrees.

Eugene Parker, 91, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, predicted the existence of solar wind 60 years ago.

This is the first-ever spacecraft to be named after someone still alive. Its launch window will open at 3.48am (eastern daylight time, or 7.48am Greenwich mean time) on Saturday 11 August. It will fly by our solar system's hottest planet seven times over seven years, using the gravity of Venus to shrink its own oval orbit and draw increasingly closer to the sun.

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Helios 2 got within 43 million km of the sun in 1976.

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

United Launch Alliance is preparing to launch a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station early Saturday morning. There will be 24 orbits between Venus and the sun, with the final three putting Parker closest to the sun - just six million kilometres out - in 2024 and 2025.

The heat shield is built to withstand radiation equivalent to up to about 500 times the Sun's radiation on Earth.

It weighs a mere 635 kg.

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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.

"With each orbit, we'll be seeing new regions of the sun's atmosphere and learning things about stellar mechanics that we've wanted to explore for decades".

As NASA explains, the probe's first challenge will be to cancel out the speed at which the earth is moving in relation to the sun.

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