NASA is gearing up for the launch of a spacecraft that will venture into the sun’s atmosphere and discover the secrets of the solar system’s host star. The unmanned mission is set for summer of 2018.

But why is the U.S. space agency shooting for the sun this time?

Why This Audacious Sun Mission?

Dubbed the Parker Solar Probe after 89-year-old solar astrophysicist Eugene Parker, the mission will mark the first time that NASA is flying a mission into the sun’s atmosphere.

The “unprecedented” mission to “touch the sun” will harness advanced technologies to withstand searing temperatures of 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit as it comes closer to the solar atmosphere’s outermost section. The spacecraft will approach 4 million miles of the surface, braving heat as well as radiation unlike any other manmade object in history.

It’s anticipated to answer the question: how do stars really work?

Scientists, for instance, can finally answer some fundamental questions that remain unanswered, such as why the corona is hotter than the solar surface.

“Being able to explain why the sun’s corona behaves the way it does and how the solar wind is formed and how it evolves is really key to putting the most pieces of the puzzle together,” said mission scientist Nicola Fox, calling it the “coolest, hottest mission under the sun.”

Examining Solar Storms, Space Weather

The mission is also crucial in getting further insight on solar storms and how to protect Earth from them. The Parker Solar Probe, aimed to be positioned at least 6 million kilometers (3.7 million miles) above the solar surface, will examine these devastating phenomena.

The goal for NASA is to study the magnetic fields surrounding the sun, which could be linked to various changes in temperature and weather conditions. Space weather is the term for the dynamic activity brought by supercharged particles and radiation released from the sun and coming across Earth as they pass through the inner solar system.

Once magnetic fields break, according to NASA, a solar storm or another severe weather occurrence is likely to take place, with neighboring planets such as Earth bearing the brunt of the sun’s heat.

The consequences of space weather include loss of satellite communications, altered orbits of spacecraft around our planet, and surges throughout power grids worldwide. Astronauts, too, are at risk of being exposed to the potent radiation.

Electromagnetic storms have been estimated to cause $2 trillion in devastating effects.

Parker’s Solar Research

It’s also the first time that a NASA mission has been named after a living scientist.

In the 1950s, Parker created the theory of solar wind, predicting the spiral shape of the sun’s magnetic field in the outer solar system. Now an 89-year-old professor emeritus at University of Chicago, he proposed that a strong wind continuously blows from the sun and fills local interstellar space with ionized gas.

According to Parker, he is greatly honored to be connected to a “heroic” mission like the solar probe, which will be launched atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 31, 2018.

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